Province touts new high speed Internet strategy

HALIFAX: The provincial government is proceeding with a plan to bring high speed Internet access to more parts of Nova Scotia.

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 about the many spots around the province without adequate service.

“We’re hearing that virtually from every corner of the province, from every different type of user,” MacLellan noted.

“From a residential side, Internet access is important for information, it’s important from an educational perspective to deliver programs that are found on-line, from a health care perspective; any of the new technologies and IT infrastructure that hospitals utilize and the health system utilizes requires broadband access in many cases. Of course from an economic perspective, in places like Cape Breton, it’s much easier to attract tourism in that critical season if you’ve got steady and strong access to Internet.”

In spring 2015, Ernst & Young was contracted by the Department of Business to review the state of rural Internet service in Nova Scotia and the “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 very 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.

“The first [study] broke down some of the broad infrastructure that would be required to get that into different regions that were having Internet challenges, and then the final piece is delivering on the specifics of per home, what that would look like,” MacLellan explained.

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 that was pegged by Brightstar in both reports was… between $300 million and $500 million, so given the fact that we had budgeted $15 million per year, going back to last year’s budget, really indicates the amount of pressure there would be to increase the broadband investment,” MacLellan said.

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.

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.

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.

Although 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 federal government and the private sector also have roles to play.

“When you put $120 million up, you can leverage that, obviously there will be private sector investment from the Internet Service Providers who will participate in this project and also from the federal government, they have a broadband program as well,” MacLellan explained. “We’ll leverage this investment to make sure it’s maximized and it’ll be a much larger number than the $120 million we put up at this point.”