Platform Pillar 2: Accelerate Upgrades to Rural High Speed Internet

” As CBRM District 3 Councillor, I will put forth a motion to create a special ad hoc committee tasked with accelerating the pace of upgrades to Rural High Speed Internet. “

Glen Murrant – August 22, 2020
Graph shows the widening gap between rural and urban internet speeds

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“If residents and businesses don’t have access to quality broadband, this will likely limit future growth in the region.” 1.

Most people in Nova Scotia don’t think twice about watching YouTube or participating in a Zoom meeting. But for rural internet customers, especially in CBRM District 3, even sending email can be a nail-biting test of patience.

Communities such as Grand Narrows, Frenchvale, Leitches Creek, and Georges River have been waiting for almost 15 years to receive the same level of internet service provided to their neighbours – minutes away – in communities like North Sydney and Coxheath.

Background

Since 2007 the provincial and federal governments have been awarding private companies contract after contract to deliver reliable high-speed internet to rural communities. Time after time these companies fall short of their obligations.

Starting in 2006, premier Rodney MacDonald promised that within three years, 100% of Nova Scotia homes would have high speed Internet – making Nova Scotia a leader in high-speed connectivity. Seaside Wireless was awarded part of a $14-million fund, known then as the BRNS (Broadband for Rural Nova Scotia) fund, to connect the rural residents of Cape Breton Island. Fourteen years later the project has yet to reach its targets.

In 2015 Seaside Communications was awarded $6-million from Industry Canada to upgrade their network and improve speeds in rural Cape Breton and norther Nova Scotia. Then again in 2016 they received a $2-million loan from ACOA. 2.

The residents of CBRM District 3 still have some of the slowest internet speeds in Canada.

Adding further insult to injury, since March of this year, rural internet customers have experienced a noticeable reduction in both upload and download speeds – while many urban customers have seen their speeds increase, or double. 3.

Nova Scotia Internet Trust Fund

In 2018 the $193-million Nova Scotia Internet Trust Fund was created. Develop Nova Scotia (DNS), a provincial agency was designated to administer the trust fund and develop a plan to connect 95% of rural customers – at speeds defined by Industry Canada: 50 mbps down / 10 mbps up.

In February DNS announced that the community of Boisdale would be getting FiberOp from Bell Aliant.4. However multiple requests for additional details about the upgrades were declined; it is not known when the project will be completed, or if neighbouring communities will also be connected.

Also with funding announced in February, Seaside Communications developed a plan – announced in July – to partner with Eskasoni First Nation. The project will see over 1,000 customers connected.
The next round of contracts was scheduled to be announced by August 20th, but as of this writing there have been no updates.

The MOPC Model

Frustrated by over a decade of missed targets and broken promises, many communities have taken matters into their own hands.

Lawrencetown, Lunenburg, North Queens and the Municipality of Pictou County (MOPC) are just a few of the communities to have established their very own high speed internet service networks.

The MOPC Rural Internet Project 5. provides an excellent case study – one that should be reviewed as a potential solution for rural CBRM. Pictou County is approximately the same size as CBRM with roughly 1/4 of the population – most of whom live in rural neighbourhoods with slow rural internet.

” It is essential for the rural areas of Pictou County to be treated the same as other areas when it comes to modern communication. Our residents require this service for business operations, education, health and even entertainment.
With COVID0-19 and the recent tragedies in Northern Nova Scotia, modern communication infrastructure is more than a convenience; it can be the difference between life and death. ”

Warden Robert Parker
Map of the Municipality of Pictou County

MOPC Project Overview

MOPC is constructing the backbone of its own gigabit speed network to serve all 11,500 underserved households and businesses in the municipality.

In 2017 council identified the need for improvements and set about finding solutions that would facilitate much needed economic growth in the region. Over the next two years the needs and challenges were identified and contractors were selected.

Poster promoting the new municipal internet project for Pictou County

In March 2020, council approved $11-million for phase-1 of the $25-million project. This first of three phases is expected to be complete in the fall of this year (2020).

“ The project involves a $25-million municipal investment that returns revenues for further investment in future upgrades.  It will usher in an era of expanded economic and social growth for Pictou County residents. 

“The network will provide 100% coverage for all residents.  Service quality will meet or exceed Canadian standards, and pricing will be competitive and equitable.  Because the network is “Open Access”, all Internet Service Providers are welcome to offer services—a benefit that will provide variety and ensure good consumer value. ” 5.

Municipal Revenue Source

The municipality views the network not only as essential infrastructure, but also as a means of generating revenue. Once complete, MOPC will lease bandwidth to other service providers – such as Bell, Eastlink, Rogers, etc. – giving residents the freedom to choose their internet provider. These leases will generate substantial revenue for the municipality – lessening the tax burden on residents.

The system will be a combination of wired (Fibre Op) and wireless. The minimum network speeds will exceed those established by Industry Canada: 25/5 Mbps over wireless – and to 1 Gbps over fibre.

The network will also support the county’s mobile network – improving cellular service for the region and providing the municipality with additional revenue from mobile operators.

Funding

The project was initially dependant on partial funding from the Develop Nova Scotia (DNS) Internet Trust Fund. However, while MOPC identified need for service to 11,500 customers, DNS only identified 5,500 – and denied the project funding.

Regardless, MOPC was confident in the value of the project and forged ahead, assuming the entire cost – but still hopeful that federal support will be provided from the CRTC’s $750-million Broadband Fund. 6.

The Need for a CBRM Strategy

Much like the Municipality of Pictou County, CBRM has a large rural population. The need for high speed internet is critical.

As noted in the August 2019 CBRM Viability Study, “… broadband internet connectivity is increasingly playing a critical role in municipal competitiveness … The CBRM’s current level of both appears to be lagging

CBRM residents in rural areas have difficulty accessing government services, educational resources, and lack the ability to work effectively from home or to operate home-based businesses.

The poor quality/speed of internet in rural CBRM also negatively effects the tourism and hospitality industry. Not to mention that home prices in areas with poor quality internet have 3% lower property values. 7.

While some (few) communities will gradually be connected via the DNS program – we must keep in mind that the service providers who bid on these projects are in it for profit. They will only connect communities where they can make a fast return on their investment.

Realistically – many parts of rural CBRM will never see good high-speed internet unless the Municipality adopts a MOPC style strategy.

Sources

  1. Cape Breton Regional Municipality Viability Study Recommendations Report, August 6th, 2019. p 35. https://cbrm-district3.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Viability_Study_FInal_Report_Aug_6th.pdf
  2. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/seaside-wireless-acoa-loan-improved-internet-service-1.3469368
  3. https://www.cira.ca/newsroom/state-internet/new-internet-performance-data-shows-urban-speeds-improving-while-rural
  4. https://developns.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Project-Announcement-Backgrounder-Feb-2020.pdf
  5. https://county.pictou.ns.ca/rural-internet-project/
  6. https://crtc.gc.ca/eng/internet/fnds.htm
  7. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00036846.2019.1631443

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