Rural residents getting the short end of the fibre line

A group of residents in Inverness County is correct in their claims that rural areas are being treated unfairly by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and governments of all levels.

After Hurricane Dorian shut down phone service, as well as the back-up system last September, an ad-hoc committee of the Judique Development Association was formed to look into phone service in the area.

It wasn’t long before committee member John MacInnis said they started hearing stories of many 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 because it provides not only access to the World Wide Web, but also facilitates better phone service.

Last January, after a presentation to Inverness Municipal Council by iValley, Campbell and MacInnis were disappointed when councillors told them that most of the complaints they were hearing from constituents surrounded cell phone service.

Campbell responds that the issue is not just cell phone service, and it’s not just about the Judique area, so the group started educating themselves about the situation to start their lobby.

Campbell said the group has reached out to business owners, organizations and individuals in places like Port Hood and Mabou, along with Judique.

In addition to the municipality, the group has also been working with Inverness MLA Allan MacMaster, but Campbell said she’s disappointed they’ve been unable to make contact with Cape Breton-Canso MP Mike Kelloway.

In their effort to be better informed, MacInnis said they found out that Develop Nova Scotia has $192 million to spend on better Internet in the province. Unfortunately, he said 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 in more communities.

MacInnis said the companies are “cherry-picking” service for more heavily populated areas to reach more customers and make more money.

Campbell agreed that communities like Judique are being overlooked because they are rural and because the service providers are driven by their shareholders.

“We’re using our taxpayer dollars to give these service providers the money to come and service us, because they won’t come and service us unless they get that additional money,” she noted

She pointed out that some like Pictou County and Kings County, as well as Eskasoni First Nation – which have gone on their own and are now accessing provincial and federal streams of funding – will be in a better position than others.

MacInnis said these jurisdictions are not trying to make money, like the ISPs, but are trying to empower their residents and communities by retaining local control of infrastructure and providing faster service.

He and Campbell agree that the Municipality of the County of Inverness needs to take charge like other jurisdictions in Nova Scotia.

“We don’t need to ship our money to Bay Street in Toronto, we need to keep the money here,” MacInnis stated.

Another point of contention with Develop Nova Scotia is that it is using the criteria for Internet service speeds prescribed by the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). As a result, Campbell said Judique residents are paying for high speed rates, but getting service that is not even close to that standard.

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.

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.

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 will be announced this month. Campbell said the group knows that some community in Inverness County will get service upgrades, but they don’t know if it is Judique.

If the group is unsuccessful in being approved for the latest round of Develop Nova Scotia funding, Campbell was told by the Cape Breton Partnership that unserved and under-serviced areas will be identified, then ISPs will be approached to connect them.

Campbell said 15 years ago, Internet service was regarded as a luxury, but now it is essential with hospitals, schools, home businesses and other important segments of society on-line.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, MacInnis said the necessity of high speed has become even more apparent with kids learning at home, most universities on-line and doctor’s visits taking place via the Internet.

Now that more people are looking to move from higher population areas because of COVID-19, MacInnis said the poor services does not make the area attractive to prospective residents.

“Having good Internet could be the salvation for rural Canada, not just rural Nova Scotia,” he said.

In the last two to three months, Campbell said she’s heard of summer homes being constructed and families returning to Inverness County.

Since a municipal election is coming up in October, she said this should be a prominent issue.

And of course, this should be one of the top issues for candidates and voters in October’s municipal election, simply because so many important issues are connected to connectivity.

For communities to grow, to keep businesses functioning, to facilitate work in the health care sector, to allow young minds to develop, and to provide reliable phone service, rural communities need reliable Internet service, and they need it immediately.

Under Develop Nova Scotia’s plan, that will take time, under the rules set out by the CRTC, rural Canadians continue to be charged unfairly and served unequally, and according to some municipal governments, only cell phone service deserves attention.

These entities are standing in the way of progress, so they can either step aside and empower communities, or get onboard and start working with them.