P.E.I. tourism industry lobbies federal government for high-speed internet

The P.E.I. tourism industry is raising its concerns about the lack of high-speed internet, especially in rural areas, and what tourism operators are paying to try to meet those needs.

"It's a crucial piece when we talk about tourism and visitation, the traveller in this day and age expects that as a minimal requirement," said Kevin Mouflier, CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of P.E.I.

"There's really no other way other than paying higher rates … which does not make sense because they're getting slow speeds."

On Wednesday, tourism officials and operators met with Island MP Wayne Easter and Gudie Hutchings, parliamentary secretary to the minister for women and gender equality and rural economic development. 

One of the big topics of discussion was the $1 billion Universal Broadband Fund announced in the 2019 budget.

Ken Linton/CBC

"There is a promise with this new initiative that they'll have high-speed internet across Canada 95 per cent by 2026, that's not quick enough," Mouflier said.

"We use the example of P.E.I. being the smallest province in Canada. Wouldn't it be a great opportunity to have a pilot and have us first to have that internet from tip to tip."

The association will be asking its members in rural areas to do an internet speed test, to help make their case for federal funding. 

Rick Gibbs/CBC

"Spread that word around the Island so that they can pick up that information quickly," Mouflier said.

Easter said it was important for the parliamentary secretary for rural economic development to hear directly from Prince Edward Islanders.

"Internet connectivity is … as important today as electricity was in its timeframe," Easter said.

"If you're going to do business in rural areas, then you need high-speed broadband and it needs to be on a level playing field with those that live and work in urban areas."

High-speed targets

The target of the new Universal Broadband Fund is high-speed internet service of at least 50 megabytes per second for downloads and 10 megabytes per second for uploads in rural and remote communities. 

"We've had all kinds of programming over the years on trying to get broadband in place across the country," Easter said.

"Some of it has worked and some of it hasn't. We're a long way from there in most areas at the moment."

Rick Gibbs/CBC

Easter said the parliamentary secretary has been travelling to rural areas, holding similar meetings with municipalities, tourism associations, farm groups and others.

"The objective is to get to 90 to 95 per cent of connectivity by 2026," Easter said.

"I'd like to see it much, much sooner than that because it relates to economic development. But we're a smaller area and there is no reason why we can't move faster."

Visitor expectations

High-speed internet can't come soon enough for Judy MacDonald, owner and operator of the Barachois Inn in Rustico, P.E.I.

She said the speed of the internet connection is often one of the first questions she gets from potential guests.

"It's becoming even a bigger issue all the time, this past year we've had to install a second service in order to get the kind of service the guests expect," MacDonald said.

"Often whether they book or not has to do with the service that you get on the internet."

Rick Gibbs/CBC

MacDonald was pleased to be invited to the meeting with the parliamentary secretary.

"Obviously we would love to have that high speed tomorrow," MacDonald said.

"We understand that this is a big task and their goal is 2026 but Prince Edward Island is a great place to start as a pilot because as you know when things are small it's much more manageable and success is more likely."

Rick Gibbs/CBC

MacDonald said she's now paying double what she previously paid to have high-speed internet to both of her buildings, about $2,500 per year.

She recently asked one internet provider when she could possibly get higher speeds.

"I asked the question, would it be in my lifetime?" MacDonald said. 

"'Probably not.' That was the the answer that I got."

Key priority for tourism

High-speed internet was named one of the top priorities for the P.E.I. tourism industry in the 2020 budget, in a presentation to Finance Minister Darlene Compton.

In a statement to CBC, a spokesperson for the Department of Economic Growth, Tourism and Culture said that government "recognizes fast and reliable internet is crucial for Islanders, businesses and visitors to our province."

"Government investments have been made to expand and improve internet service coverage across rural Prince Edward Island. Preliminary design work has been underway, and we hope to share more details on internet plans soon."

More from CBC P.E.I.