JUDIQUE: Federal MPs were here last week to meet with residents, groups and elected officials to plan for improvements to Internet and cellular phone service in Inverness County.
On August 28, the Judique Community Centre hosted a meeting of the Judique Development Association, Inverness MLA Allan MacMaster, Inverness Warden Betty Ann MacQuarrie, Cape Breton-Canso MP Mike Kelloway, and federal fisheries minister Bernadette Jordan.
“It is a top-tier priority, a top-tier need, but also a top-tier opportunity to build on economic development, to build on education, to build on health care,” Kelloway told reporters after the meeting. “These are the tools of the 21st century and we need to build on what we have in a relatively quick period of time.”
As an MP in a rural area, a former rural economic development minister and a rural resident, Jordan said she knows full-well the importance of Internet service.
“There does need to be a lot more done, we are working as a government to make sure that we’re addressing rural connectivity,” the minister said. “We have to do better. You shouldn’t be disadvantaged because you live in rural Canada. We should all be treated the same.”
Last month, an ad-hoc committee of the Judique Development Association said rural areas, like Inverness County, are not being well served by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and various levels of government in their attempts to improve communication infrastructure in Inverness County.
Committee member John MacInnis said they heard many stories of residents struggling with inadequate service in many parts of Inverness County.
Fellow committee member Florence Campbell pointed out that before long, the issue of better Internet service arose as one solution and efforts to improve phone service and upgrade Internet infrastructure continued.
Campbell noted there are federal and provincial monies available to improve the situation, but despite the fact that Judique has been identified as a problem area, still nothing has been done.
Jordan said current Minister of Rural Economic Development Marian Monsef is working on the Universal Broadband Fund, which is the next phase of the federal government’s connectivity strategy, which she expects will be released soon.
“It’s going to help address a lot of the concerns we’re hearing in rural communities, it’ll address a lot of the challenges we’ve had with the Connect to Innovate Fund,” Jordan noted. “We know how important this is, there’s no question you have to have broadband in this day and age.”
In the last round of funding announced last December by Develop Nova Scotia to ISPs to work on Internet service, the Chéticamp and Inverness areas were both selected.
Develop Nova Scotia then closed out Requests for Proposals in the spring for round 2 of funding, which is supposed to be announced soon.
MacInnis said Develop Nova Scotia has $192 million to spend on better Internet in the province, but he says the manner in which contracts are awarded is seriously flawed because it allows the ISPs to own the communication infrastructure, and forces government to provide funding to conduct future work on more communities.
As a result, MacInnis said the ISPs are “cherry-picking” more heavily populated areas and servicing them to get more customers and more revenue.
Another point of contention is that Develop Nova Scotia is using the criteria for Internet service speeds prescribed by the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). MacInnis said the CRTC is allowing ISPs to charge the same rate in rural areas as they do in urban locations, despite the vast differences in reception quality and speed.
“There’s going to have to be a lot of conversations with the CRTC as we go forward to make sure that we are addressing concerns that we are hearing,” the minister said. “We need to build the infrastructure for the future. We need to make sure that we’re hitting the speeds that the CRTC has put in place. But we also have to make sure that we’re building infrastructure that can grow with communities.”
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, MacInnis said the necessity of high speed Internet has become even more apparent with more at-home learning taking place, medication orders going out on-line and doctor’s visits taking place virtually.
With some people looking to move to Inverness County from higher population areas, MacInnis said this poor services does not make the area look attractive to prospective residents.
“We need to make sure that we continue to collect the data to make sure that communities that are growing, what they do need,” Jordan stated. “This is not an easy fix. This is not something that we can just flip a switch and tomorrow everyone’s got the speeds that they want.”
Now that they know what they need to fight for and are attempting to let the public know what they are trying to achieve, Campbell said the group has reached out to business owners, organizations and individuals in places like Port Hood and Mabou, in addition to Judique.
In addition to the municipality, the group has also been working with Inverness MLA Allan MacMaster, and reached out to federal officials.
Kelloway called the meeting “very constructive” where key problems were identified.
“Our government has been committed from day one to building back better, especially during the COVID time,” he added. “That’s what we’re going to continue to do. So we’re going to have a stronger relationship with the association here in Judique, in Inverness and we’ll continue to have a close relationship and work very, very closely with the municipality in Inverness.”