The provincial government deserves kudos for proceeding with a plan to bring high speed Internet access to more parts of Nova Scotia, but how exactly that will be financed, remains unknown.
On June 4, the Department of Business released the “Last Mile Strategy,” developed by Brightstar Canada. The strategy provides recommendations about how to connect underserved and unserved households and businesses to high speed Internet.
Business minister Geoff MacLellan said the plan was in response to public feedback from every different type of user about the many spots in every corner of the province without adequate service.
Municipal councils, elected officials, organizations, businesses, and residents have been complaining for years about the lack of reliable high speed Internet access in parts of the Strait area.
While the previous NDP administration vowed to connect the province ago a decade ago, work started under the Liberals in the spring of 2015 when Ernst & Young was contracted by the Department of Business to review the state of rural Internet service in Nova Scotia. Their “Review of Alternatives for Rural High Speed Internet report” was delivered in June 2016. The report examined Nova Scotia’s Internet service landscape, current technologies available, Internet services around the world, and possible roles for government in improving service.
The report concluded that success will require a mix of technologies and key partners. Wired technologies (like fibre or cable) offer better reliability, while fixed wireless and satellite are also viable options. Ernst & Young recommended that Nova Scotia build a long-term plan to enhance their “Middle Mile” or backbone infrastructure, as well as to strengthen “Last Mile” infrastructure.
Government then began a process to develop a long-term strategy for the “Middle Mile,” while also launching a number of programs that could improve more “Last Mile” connections to homes and businesses in the shorter term.
Brightstar Canada mapped existing infrastructure, identified Internet bandwidth demand and gaps, and developed costing models for improving internet service in Nova Scotia.
While the province’s long-term strategy was in development, projects were initiated to improve “Last Mile” connections in the shorter term such as the Municipal and Community Group Rural High-Speed Internet Funding Program. Launched in November, 2016, this program helped groups partner with Internet Service Providers to make immediate improvements to “Last Mile” service in communities across Nova Scotia. It provided up to $75,000 per project and the government was able to support 22 projects, with a total investment of approximately $1.4 million.
In July 2016, a Request for Information was issued to Internet Service Providers seeking solutions to improve “Last Mile” connections in the short term. There were 11 responses and this information helped government better understand the range and scope of solutions that could be implemented in the shorter term and what those solutions might cost.
While he called the strategy “fantastic,” the minister said the biggest challenge lies in finding the financial means to execute the plan. The cost of the strategy was estimated at between $300 million and $500 million by Brightstar, and given that the province budgeted $15 million per year, MacLellan acknowledged there will be “pressure” to increase the broadband investment.
The next step in this process was planned to be an application-based funding program for Internet Service Providers. However, the province is working to align support with federal and municipal partners. The federal government’s Connect to Innovate Program is enhancing backbone Internet infrastructure and supporting “Last Mile” projects in rural and remote communities across Canada.
In December 2016, the CRTC announced minimum targets for basic internet service and announced a new five-year, $750 million fund. Government will continue to work with federal partners to align with federal programs and incorporate new information into Nova Scotia’s long-term strategy, as appropriate.
It was recently announced that the federal government will spend $17.7 million on Connect to Innovate projects in Nova Scotia and the Nova Scotia Internet Funding Trust will contribute $1.2 million towards those projects, with some additional funding coming from municipalities and internet service providers.
Because the McNeil government pledged $120 million from offshore oil and gas revenue in the recent provincial budget to increase high speed Internet access, MacLellan said the province can leverage their commitment to attract federal government and private sector investment.
While it’s conceivable the federal government will be willing to make a contribution to this noble effort, it is unknown whether private sector Internet Service Providers will participate and how much investment they will be willing to offer.
That decision comes to money, as it does in any private sector consideration, and if there is a sound business case for these companies to hook-up more Nova Scotians, this strategy can work.
Conversely, if these same companies decide that the costs far outweigh the benefits that will leave a large investment and service gap in the middle of this strategy. These companies will tell you that the lack of business case is a reason there are large service gaps in the first place.
If these private sector cost concerns can be offset by public sector financial commitments and the work already done by government, that could be enough to bring the private sector onboard.
This strategy has to succeed because it is badly needed and integral to the future of this province.