After 10 months and a change in government, P.E.I. still 'finalizing the deal' for rural internet

In March of 2019, on the eve of an election call, the government of Wade MacLauchlan announced its latest plan to deliver high-speed internet access to rural Prince Edward Islanders.

Bell Canada and Xplornet would receive $37 million in government funding, most of it from Ottawa, and as a result nearly 30,000 Island residents and businesses would end up with internet speeds up to 50 times faster than their current rates.

Close to 6,000 of those customers were to be hooked up by the end of 2019.

The year has ended. The government has changed. And Islanders are still waiting for the internet upgrades they've been promised over and over again.

On Friday, P.E.I.'s Minister of Economic Development Matthew MacKay said government is in "the final stages here of finalizing the deal."

John Robertson/CBC

When the MacLauchlan government announced the plan last March, it said it was already "finalizing agreements" with Bell and Xplornet.

"The previous administration made an announcement for the election and promised high-speed internet without doing their homework," said MacKay. "And that's what we're doing now."

MacKay said a deal is "close to getting signed."

"We've seen governments promise for over a dozen years that Islanders are going to have high-speed internet, and [they] haven't been able to fulfil that," he said.

"I want to make sure when my signature goes on a contract that I'm 100 per cent confident Islanders will get the high-speed internet they've been promised."

Delays frustrate rural customers

"It's beyond frustrating," said Jennifer Mooney, manager of Campbell's Cove Campground in the eastern end of the Island, who said she's heard this commitment before.

Mooney said her business pays about $600 a month for phone and internet service with Bell.

She said it takes 11 to 14 minutes to upload a photo to the campground's Twitter account. Making HST filings online with CRA, something which should take 20 minutes, takes four times as long "because the internet is so slow to load the page it times itself out."

Sarah MacMillan/CBC

Mooney said they added a third modem just so her father, who also works at the campground, can listen to an audio stream of the CFCY Saturday Night Hoedown. She said it only works "as long as everyone else working has their phones turned off."

"If you want to download a game off Steam, then I hope you have a week to wait, while it slows down the entire internet for the whole house," said Alex Donahue, an Eastlink customer from New Haven, P.E.I.

"Watching a live stream is completely out of the question. If it does five seconds without stopping it will blow my mind."  

Many online concerned with slow speeds

On Twitter, other Islanders shared similar frustrations.

"I'm as frustrated as anybody," said MacKay. 

"This is on me. I'm the one that's going to be signing this deal. I want to make sure we've got an iron-clad deal, an airtight deal that is going to provide high-speed internet once and for all for Islanders. And that's what we're waiting for."

As for who can expect to receive better service and how much longer they'll have to wait, MacKay said "within the coming weeks, I'll be able — after the contract is signed — be able to provide every district, every MLA with a map to show timelines, who's getting hooked up and so forth."

No timeline for when deal will be finished

A spokesperson from Bell told CBC the company expects "to have everything finalized soon" in its deal with the province. The company provided a similar reply to a similar query back in November.

There was no response to an email sent to Xplornet.

A spokesperson for the federal department of Rural Economic Development said $33 million in federal funding is still available for P.E.I, but that provinces are "responsible for the planning, prioritization, design, financing and administration of their infrastructure projects."

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