The coronavirus pandemic proved that reliable high-speed internet access is a need, not a want—and that too much of Atlantic Canada is off the grid
As schools, churches, funerals, meetings, working from home, grocery and other shopping all morphed on-line in early 2020, the inadequacies of broadband access in this region were heightened.
Sarah Benetto O’Brien, owner of the PEI Handpie Company on the Trans Canada Highway in Albany, Prince Edward Island, says her spotty Bell internet service is hurting her business. “We’ve had it go down several times and that has an impact on business, especially during the last few months because nobody is carrying cash,” she says. “We are trying to stay contactless but for the past six and a half years, the service has been inconsistent. … If it’s wet or windy or there’s a little bit of rain, or they’re working on the road, the service goes down. And, this year with fewer tourists, we need to be able to operate as much as possible in order to survive.”
As for Zoom or other video services, Bennetto O’Brien says that’s not even worth the attempt. If she needs to video conference, she has to leave work and drive home, a few kilometres away. While her area’s elected provincial representative assured her there would be a new repeater installed in a few months, she’s sceptical any improvements will occur.
There’s been no shortage of broadband promises. On the Island, the government announced an initiative featuring service from national telco, Bell Canada and Canadian rural internet provider, Xplornet. Under the agreement, Bell Canada will provide improved internet service to 13 areas organized by phone exchange across P.E.I. while Xplornet will provide fixed wireless and fibre to 20,000 civic addresses. According to the agreement, over the next two to three years, close to 30,000 households will see improved service levels up to at least 50/10 Mbps (megabits per second).
A similar initiative is ongoing in Nova Scotia. The Crown corporation Develop Nova Scotia (DNS) has been tasked with extending coverage to 97 per cent of the province. Monique Arsenault, DNS’s director of alignment and community impact, says the process started in 2018. The Nova Scotia Internet Funding Trust, a $193 million fund established by the provincial government, is investing $59 million in the DNS projects, with leveraged funds of $61 million from the public and private sectors. Launched in early 2020, just prior to the pandemic shut-down, approximately 18,000 homes and businesses now have networks in place to offer new or improved high-speed internet. Projects in this initial round are expected to be substantially complete by end of March 2021.
“In February, we were pleased to partner with Develop Nova Scotia to deliver high-speed internet to approximately 19,000 locations in 28 communities,” says Bell Aliant’s manager of corporate affairs, Katie Hatfield. “In September, with the second round of Develop Nova Scotia funding, we’ll be expanding high-speed internet to approximately 32,000 more residences, businesses and other organizations in 100 communities across the province.”
“Wireless Home Internet, a new technology specifically designed to bring broadband Internet access to rural locations, is a good example,” she adds. While they are still finalizing their rollout schedule, she says they expect to cover at least 150,000 households throughout all Atlantic Canada.
“Covid shone a spotlight on how important this is,” Arsenault says. “It’s a large infrastructure project and building the pieces will take some time.”
Not all communities in the province are following this model. In fact, Joe Hickey, CEO of Rock Networks, says Pictou County is the ‘poster child for another model’. His company (which acquired long-time Nova Scotia communications provider, Nova Communications) is working with the County to roll out a community broadband network. “It’s a different approach to solving the problem,” Hickey says. “There are two kinds of challenges—the first is the technological challenge while the second is the business challenge.”
Hickey’s solution is a partnership between the municipal government and local providers, basically bringing broadband closer to home rather than being controlled by companies headquartered out of the province.
Municipalities are already responsible for installing infrastructure like roads and ditches; Hickey advocates extending that to the installation of fibre optic cable. The municipality hires companies to install the infrastructure, amortizes it over a period of time, and sells the service to local residents at prices that are competitive to the larger players.
“For example, if a customer pays the municipality $100/month for broadband, that’s $1,200 per year,” he says. “If you have 1,000 households, that’s $12 million, of which $1.2 million is a new revenue stream for the municipality. It’s not tax based, it stays in the community where it also benefits it.”
COVID-19 has changed how we work and the days of having to be physically in an office are no longer essential. People can, theoretically, work from anywhere—that’s why reliable high-speed internet has become a valuable marketing tool for community economic development organizations.
The whole region is aging and the temptation to move to the bright lights of the big city means youth are not staying in their hometowns. But, having access to all the tools they need technologically can be a way to keep them at home or, once the attraction of the big city has worn off, facilitate their return.
The technology that people have used to get through the lockdown has also emphasized the need for reliable, fast service throughout the region.
“A few years ago Facebook, Netflix, Spotify, Instagram, Messenger, Snapchat, Zoom didn’t exist,” Hickey says. “Networks today weren’t designed for today’s uses let alone future requirements. That’s why we have to look at more fibre, less wire. With fibre, the pipeline will never be full, the bandwidth is infinite.”
Hickey believes having this type of broadband access will help attract people to the region, people who want to get away from the rat races and expensive property values of larger metropolises. “They need to approach the big companies, the Shopifys, the banks, IBM, Microsoft and others and encourage them to bring some people here. These are high paying IT skilled jobs that don’t exist here. You can buy or build a home here that’s larger than people can afford in these cities, so there’s an addition to the municipal tax base and you’re adding to the community.”
Hickey is preaching to the choir in Pictou County.
Brian Cullen, the County’s CAO, says that about three years ago, they started identifying issues that councillors were hearing from their constituents—inadequate internet connectivity was high on the list. “We backed that up with speed tests and most of the County was well under 10 MBS, so that quantified the issue. Then, we asked, what is the solution and how do we get it?”
Rock Networks was one of the companies that responded to the County’s request for proposals. “What set Rock apart was that their solution was to build the network but the municipality would own it so we could control our own destiny,” he says. “We started down the road by building our network and then having service providers provide the broadband to the end customer.”
Originally the plan was to provide two-thirds wireless coverage and one-third broadband but as the project rolled out, that was reversed. Phase one is underway with anticipated completion in 2021. One thousand residences have been identified in this phase, from a total population of 22 thousand. “This is a 50-year asset for the County,” says Cullen.
“I have a feeling that snow days will be a thing of the past,” he says. “Now people don’t have to worry about getting to the office, they can work at home so we don’t have the option of closing the office.”
“One thing we have discovered is that when real estate agents are inquiring about a property in our County, the first thing they ask about is about the internet capacity,” he says. “It’s become a selling point and if the answer is non-existent, they aren’t interested in buying that home.”
If anything has become particularly evident over the past six months, it’s that reliable broadband is a necessity, not a luxury. •