This rural county will own a high-speed internet system, bringing benefits but also big costs

·5 min read
Slow internet has been a large problem in rural Nova Scotia. (Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images - image credit)
Slow internet has been a large problem in rural Nova Scotia. (Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images - image credit)

Pictou County may become the only municipality in Nova Scotia that owns a high-speed internet system, a project it hopes will bring affordable and quality access to every resident of the area and provide the county with a new revenue stream.

The cost of installing high-speed internet throughout the county could cost as much as $75 million, however, and the project is taking longer to get underway than first thought.

But Robert Parker, the warden of the Municipality of Pictou County, argues the upfront expense is an investment that will have long-term benefits for the municipality.

"This will make us money," said Parker. "Once we get our mortgage paid off for putting this system in, we'll have another stream of income."

The county expects the first customers to be hooked up this fall, but that's behind several other rural areas in the province that have instead benefited from work by Crown corporation Develop Nova Scotia.

Rural internet woes

Slow or non-existent internet has been a persistent problem in many rural parts of the province, and the agency has been tasked with bringing high-speed internet connections to 99 per cent of Nova Scotians by 2023.

It is doing so through $118 million from private internet companies and a $164 million internet funding trust set up by the province. According to Develop Nova Scotia officials, the work is on target, despite the pandemic.

The agency is not funding the Pictou County project, which the warden believes is unfair. He hopes that will change now that Tim Houston, the MLA for Pictou East, is the premier.

"We're quite confident that he will have another look at this," said Parker. "We're not looking for more than anybody else, we're just looking for our fair share."

Pictou County also plans to apply for about $20 million from Ottawa.

Concerns

Gregg MacDonald, who lives in Moose River, N.S., and is a citizen member of an ad hoc committee set up by the county to study the rural internet issue, said he initially supported the idea of municipal ownership.

But he's now starting to have concerns because of how long it's taking to get the network up and running. He noted a neighbour hooked up with Starlink, a satellite internet service, and "he's happy as can be with it."

"He's not going to be a county customer," said MacDonald.

Pictou County started the project in March 2020 with an initial $11 million. It is being built by a consortium led by Nova Communications.

Deborah Page, a spokesperson for Develop Nova Scotia, said the agency had entered into negotiations with the county about funding the project, but "were unable to reach a conclusion." She said the county's "numbers changed quite a few times as they were having those negotiations," and Develop Nova Scotia concluded they were not the best bid.

Annapolis County is the only other municipality leading a project, but councillors there are reconsidering municipal ownership. The county has put $13 million into a $17 million project.

Warden Alan Parish would not comment on the possibility of selling the network before it's discussed at a county council meeting. Seaside Communications is supposed to manage the system for Annapolis. The company has recently been sold to Rogers.

'Game changer'

By contrast, Antigonish County is one of the municipalities allowing Develop Nova Scotia and private companies to handle the construction and operation of the internet system.

"We looked at other options, but were advised to stick to our knitting," said Warden Owen Carrigan. "Technology changes so quickly … we didn't have the expertise and it wasn't something that we were interested in taking on."

The county has not put any municipal money into the high-speed internet work. It expects to have almost 100 per cent coverage when all work is completed by the end of 2023.

The Municipality of Shelburne contributed $1.1 million to its $5.3 million project through Develop Nova Scotia. As of June, 100 per cent of residents and businesses that have access to power have access to high-speed internet.

"We're pretty proud of that and we believe we're one of the first municipalities in the province to offer this," said Warden Penny Smith.

Smith calls the new system a "game changer" for her community because anyone interested in moving there always asks about doctors and high-speed internet.

'Blown away'

A business owner in Church Point, N.S., agrees. Shelley Bellefontaine operates a digital marketing company, with clients in Europe and North America. She switched over to a high-speed service in June.

"I was just super-impressed and blown away," said Bellefontaine. "When you have a dependable and fast service … the benefits are far reaching."

The mayor of Colchester, Christine Blair, also believes the high-speed service will "open doors" for people in her community. The municipalities of Colchester and Cumberland are collaborating on their rural internet project, which is being done by Xplorenet through Develop Nova Scotia.

The two municipalities are contributing $6 million of a $62 million project. But according to Blair, their deal "is a little different" because it gives them exclusive access to four strands of optic fibre on 500 kilometres of the network.

"It can't be used for retail, but it can be used for economic development, research and innovation, or public services such as health care, education and municipal operations, so that's different," said Blair.

According to Blair, Xplorenet is still looking for sites to put up more cell towers. She's encouraging any landowner who's interested in hosting a tower to contact their councillor or the company directly.

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