P.E.I.'s plan to improve rural internet sees 4,000 households connected so far

·3 min read

So far, Bell Fibre has provided about 4,000 rural households across P.E.I. with better internet, according to the Department of Economic Growth, Tourism and Culture.

Project manager Maigan Newson and deputy minister Erin McGrath-Gaudet provided an update on the province's deal with Bell, as well as with Xplorenet, before a standing committee at the George Coles Building on Nov. 3.

The deals, which the province announced in March, will see about 9,400 households hooked up through wired Bell connections and about 3,000 wired Xplorenet connections by mid-2021. An additional 17,000 wireless connections will be established through Xplorenet by 2023.

The $74 million project will see $33 million provided by the federal government and $3.57 provided by the P.E.I. government.

Both services are expected to exceed the standards set by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), which are 50-megabit download speeds and 10-megabit upload speeds.

The 4,000 households were serviced between June and September through Bell, which is focusing on rural towns. Tignish and Souris have been fully serviced, whereas communities such as Hunter River, Covehead, and Rustico are in phase one of infrastructure installation.

Meanwhile, no households have been connected through Xplorenet yet. It was originally set to focus on its wireless connections first but has since switched to get its wired connections out of the way, Newson said.

"This way, more households can get connected quicker. They don't have to wait until the end of the project."

Xplorenet currently uses 21 wireless towers on P.E.I. and plans to construct eight more. Upgrading the existing towers' equipment is fairly straightforward, but 15 of them are owned by other companies, meaning there's a lengthy review process to request space on each tower and ensure they can handle the upgrades, Newson said.

Many members of the standing committee of education and economic growth appreciated the department's update on the rural internet deals. Green MLA Lynne Lund questioned whether there were any plans or discussions to ensure low-income families have the same level of access to P.E.I.'s ongoing internet upgrades.

"I do think of other areas in which we offer subsidies, such as rent," she said.

McGrath-Guadet responded that the department hopes adding more competition to the marketplace will help lower internet costs and that federal subsidies do exist to help those struggling to afford internet.

"(But) we don't currently have the ability to regulate costs," she said.

As well, she noted that about five per cent of P.E.I. households won't be able to access Bell or Xplorenet's services, and a map exists which outlines the affected districts. She hopes to provide an update on how these households will be serviced by spring 2021.

"Over the winter, we'll be looking at what those solutions really are."

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Daniel Brown, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Guardian