SUDBURY -- The fact many communities in northern Ontario don't have decent internet access may be finally addressed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While urban dwellers can more easily work or take classes online from home, that's not practical in areas where internet speeds can't handle it.

This week, Ontario formally asked the federal government for $500 million to expand broadband internet access to rural areas, including the north.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce and Infrastructure Minister Laurie Scott wrote a letter to the federal government Sunday asking for "immediate, urgent support" to address the current lack of broadband access in portions of rural and northern Ontario.

A lack of reliable internet access could leave students with gaps in their education, especially as the government looks to develop a distance learning strategy in the event of a second wave of the pandemic.

It's an issue Nickel Belt MPP France Gelinas knows well. Not only do about 40,000 people in her riding not have broadband internet, many of them live in Greater Sudbury.

Including Gelinas.

"I live in Whitefish and my internet – well, how do you say 'sucks' in politically correct language?" she said in an interview this week. "The system is so, so slow."

Gelinas said schools from Whitefish to Foleyet can't use the internet for online schooling. Some areas that have tried it, she said, can tell when another student logs on, because the whole system freezes.

Some communities have asked people not to go online between 9-10 a.m. in hopes of saving bandwidth.

"Some schools have to print information and hand deliver it to student," she said.

It's not fair, Gelinas said, because "those kids need to learn" just like every other student in Ontario.

Years ago, Ontera, a provincially owned corporation, provided decent access to rural areas for $25 a month. But it was sold to the private sector, which didn't invest in the infrastructure and wouldn't take on new customers.

Gelinas said she understands why the private sector isn't interested, because you can't make a profit in such a large area with so few customers. That's why the province needs to act.

"The government is in business to help people," she said. "That's why we had Ontera."

Long term, what's needed is for governments to pay for and install all the infrastructure needed – cell towers, fibre optic cables, etc. – then hand it to private sector, who could make money if infrastructure was already there.

Shorter term, Gelinas is hoping the province will pay for so-called internet rocket sticks, which offers high speed internet when plugged into a computer.

The cost is about $400 a month, something most families can't afford.

According to a story this week by CTV's Colin D'Mello, Premier Doug Ford has committed to spending $315 million over five years to expand broadband access province-wide. It's requesting "a heightened degree of collaboration" from the federal government to speed up the effort of bringing nearly 3,000 Ontario schools – including 99 in Northern Ontario – online.

The federal government is expected to launch a $1.7 billion universal broadband fund this year, with a goal of every Canadian having reliable internet access over the next 10 years. According to published reports, the Trudeau government is looking to accelerate the pace of investment amid the pandemic but has yet to provide any details about a timeline, D'Mello's story said.

While the letter from the Ontario government doesn't specify a dollar amount that the province is looking for, sources told D'Mello the government is looking for a proportional portion of the $1.7 billion fund.

Based on population size, Ontario's share would represent 39 per cent of the overall federal fund, or roughly $663 million.