Connectivity more than just a pain point

Certainly not a new and emerging challenge, sub-par communications infrastructure continues to dampen best efforts to retain and attract businesses in our rural Nova Scotia communities.

The bottleneck in broadband connectivity is one that has continued to oppose rural Nova Scotia Communities since the 1990s when rural businesses started seeing the opportunities in basic e-commerce and streamlined business communications. IT start-ups popped out of everywhere to supply the demand for rudimentary business Web sites for everything from campgrounds, to convenience stores and change happened just like that.

As our needs for bandwidth grew and exceeded the vast limitations of dial-up and satellite service, pressure came down on the provincial government and a promise was made in 2007 to deliver broadband connectivity to 100 per cent of Nova Scotians within two years. Of course we know that this didn’t come to fruition, granted, we’ve discovered that the solution isn’t as easy as simply applying a cookie-cutter approach to building better tools for business. Nova Scotia is a significant geographical area to cover and Internet Service Providers (ISP) build their business justifications on a business case – not enough potential customers, weak business case for a significant investment. We don’t blame them for that, after all, they are in business for a reason. We have to however, look at the other businesses in our province with the same lens.

From the point of view of the Eastern-Strait Regional Enterprise Network (ESREN), we know first-hand through visits with small business and larger industry that opportunities for business retention and growth are being stalled by either lack of connectivity or very slow service speeds. We encourage business leaders to consider exporting and e-commerce with an on-line digital strategy while at the same time, reassuring that we will continue to work in our best capacity to push the communications agenda with our other REN partners in the province. The need here is not only basic connection, but at upload and download speeds that keeps up with the speed of business in 2018.

I will refer to the document released “Review of Alternatives for High Speed Internet” produced last year by the Nova Scotia Department of Business which noted that through public consultation it was determined that: businesses in Nova Scotia are experiencing the loss of staff and facing challenges in attracting staff due to quality of life issues; the lack of high-speed Internet options for tourists is considered detrimental to attracting and retaining tourists in rural regions; inability to develop land purchased due to lack of broadband internet services; additional costs incurred to send staff to Internet connected areas to complete business tasks (e.g. mandatory internet based work training); additional costs incurred for hard copy (printed documents, creating and mailing DVDs) because download speed and reliability were inconsistent; impediment to starting home businesses due to the inability to participate in on-line ecommerce supply chain activities; and negative educational impacts for K-12 and post-secondary students. The lack of high speed internet access is placing rural students at a disadvantage relative to their urban peers.

All of the above issues are related to the economic growth potential of our province and are ones that Nova Scotia’s RENs encounter every day. Chinese equipment manufacturer Huawei introduced Global Connectivity Index (GCI) which suggests a direct link between connectivity and Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This is supported by the findings that a GCI percentage point increase (in other words, the level at which good quality broadband is available), means the GDP for the geographic area in question increases by 1.4-1.9 per cent. Adequate communication technologies are simply essential to grow our rural economies and we have to begin discussing and addressing the problem this way so that appropriate attention and resources are put to it.

I believe that the Nova Scotia Department of Business have done some great work to move the broadband train forward in rural Nova Scotia, and the current government is assigning $120 million in resources to the Internet Trust Fund to bring high-speed Internet to 95 per cent of Nova Scotia (households not people). We beg to ask the question where the five per cent of remaining households will be, but understand that answers will come. We are after all looking at a complex issue where even a handsome $120 million is still $380 million short of the 100 per cent solution we heard about over a decade ago. Getting business and investment ready means adequate communications infrastructure that gives us the best chance of economic success.

I say communications and not just broadband, simply because the business connectivity bottleneck in rural Nova Scotia goes deeper than that. Business owners have been using basic phones or smart phones for decades to stay connected to customers and suppliers, however, the infrastructure still lags behind the need. There are handfuls of Nova Scotia communities without cell coverage – a stopping point for business growth and population retention. There is no silver bullet, but a strategy to connect rural Nova Scotia businesses to markets and new opportunity should include mobility access as the other main consideration for business retention and attraction as well as quality of life for those who choose to call rural Nova Scotia home.

Putting this into some real context of economic impact, in demonstrating that broadband is vital for rural municipalities, the i-Valley initiative shows how connectivity is directly related to economic development through a “push and pull” approach. The negative forces at work here include job losses, and perceived value in the community. On the other hand, when adequate connectivity is in place, economic gain in our regions is heavily influenced in a positive direction, regions become more globally competitive and service offerings in our rural communities simply become better. The opportunities are endless – broadband networks allow rural regions to become ‘virtual urban areas’.

Nova Scotia municipalities are well aware of the impact that inadequate broadband and mobility connectivity has on their wheelhouse. Commercial assessment is one indicator of growth yes, but generally speaking, assuming improved connectivity leads a specific municipality to some gains in repopulation (recent grads, boomerangers, immigrants) or increasing numbers of home-based businesses and on-line presence of a community, builds the vitality of that municipality further positioning it for additional investment and an increasing tax base. New bodies in the community also become ambassadors for growth and attraction. Connectivity isn’t just about Netflix or calling friends… it’s about the critically important economic growth – the heartbeat of every municipality in Nova Scotia.

Adequate broadband connectivity and mobility coverage are the implements to give our rural enterprises the confidence and ability to startup, grow markets, and afford our regions the capability to have a fair shake at attracting new business. Connectivity and the innovative approaches to using it gives rural Nova Scotia enterprises the ability to compete and succeed anywhere in the world. By leveraging connectivity to streamline business processes, reduce costs and improve efficiency, enterprises will push on as the true drivers of innovation and Nova Scotia’s Regional Enterprise Networks will be there every step of the way.

 

  John Beaton 

  CEO Eastern-Strait Regional Enterprise Network