Group wants municipality to lead push for cell and Internet upgrades

PORT HOOD: A group lobbying for better cellular phone and Internet services in Inverness County wants to be on the same page as the municipality.

As part of their effort, members of Better Internet for Inverness County made a presentation at the regular monthly meeting of Inverness Municipal Council in Port Hood on December 3.

Group member Bill Murphy said with some funding initiatives announced, and others pending, he wanted to detail the “next steps” the group wants to take, and to find out what the municipality is planning.

Murphy said a “critical piece” is to get the fibre map from Develop Nova Scotia and Bell Canada to identify exactly which communities and roads in the municipality remain uncovered by recent expansions and proposals.

“The next thing is, there will probably still be some gaps,” he explained. “Develop Nova Scotia, on their Web site, still has more money. Once you identify the gaps, you can ask them to provide more money to fill those gaps.”

Another priority is the Universal Broadband Fund, Murphy said, noting applications for shovel-ready projects in the first round close on January 15.

“We, or the county, or Bell, or Develop Nova Scotia, can all apply for the money for that to also extend the fibre net,” Murphy told council. “So that’s a second source of funding with a very short time.”

Because the service upgrades are estimated to take two to three years, Murphy said federal and provincial funds are vital.

“They can also be used to accelerate the roll-out; that means getting more crews on the road to pull the fibre faster,” he said.

Now that the communities served by Phase 1 of funding, Inverness and Chéticamp, have most of their infrastructure in place, Murphy said there is a need for the municipality to monitor the prices charged and services provided locally with customers in areas like the Halifax Regional Municipality and Pictou County because Bell has no competition in Inverness County.

“Bell will tend to charge more where they have no competition,” Murphy declared. “The only people who control the pricing is the [Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission], so the only hammer you have on Bell to say those prices are unfair is strong public response and public pressure.”

Murphy also called for regular meetings between the municipality and representatives of Develop Nova Scotia and Bell. They want the person who is most involved with the initiative, special projects facilitator Melanie Beaton, to attend those meetings.

The group is calling on the municipality to hire a “skilled consultant” because of the legal and technical expertise needed. Murphy said the consultant can join the meetings with Bell and Develop Nova Scotia.

Cell service is connected to the Internet, but is “totally controlled” by Bell, Murphy said, noting that the fibre map can identify where cell towers are going to be erected, and the municipality can place their own towers and have third parties manage them.

“They will only place a tower where their return on investment is three to five years,” he said.

Another option on the horizon, Murphy noted, is the “very fast” Starlink satellite that is about to be launched by SpaceX, with the potential to provide service next summer, well before Bell’s 2022-2023 targets. He said this can give competition to Bell to stabilize prices.

Once this is done, the group is requesting the municipality unveil their plans to the public and provide regular updates.

Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Keith MacDonald responded that the municipality has done a lot of leg work and is getting regular updates from Bell. He said staff are tracking applications, and have met with Cape Breton-Canso MP Mike Kelloway’s staff.

The CAO is confident that many areas will be covered in the second funding phase which was recently extended by Develop Nova Scotia.

“There’s been a lot of movement on the file of late,” MacDonald told council. “This group has certainly assisted in raising the concerns of residents throughout the county, in terms of broadband and cell service. There’s still a lot to do.”

Group member Flo Campbell told council it is significant that everyone knows how to access the federal and provincial pools of money right now.

Another group member, John MacInnis, said waiting two to three years for better Internet is not an ideal situation and that’s why he hopes the municipality will continue to “push” Bell and Develop Nova Scotia.

“We got people who are suffering, who can’t study at home, and can’t get medical attention at home,” MacInnis said.

Following the meeting, warden Laurie Cranton added that while they might go about things different, the municipality and the group have the same goals.

“Our approach and their approach may be a little bit different. We’re dealing directly with Bell and Develop Nova Scotia as well but maybe in a different forum they are,” he added. “They’re out there to promote getting it done, we’re out there to organize and negotiate a little bit more.”