By Richard Bell
Complaints about poor or non-existent high-speed Internet service in rural HRM are legendary, but not new. The Covid-19 lockdown has brutally demonstrated just how damaging this lack of access can be, from businesses that can’t reach their customers to all the out-of-school children who can’t participate with any form of online learning.
Robin Lynn, who describes herself as “a resident of Cooks Brook and educator of school-aged children,” set up a new Facebook group, Internet Equity for all HRM, on May 5 2020 to take on the challenges of ending rural Internet poverty.
In her introduction to the group, she highlights the special problems for people living in rural HRM: “While we are not dissimilar from many rural communities in NS, we ARE in the fact that we are in HRM, have been overlooked AND run the risk of continuing to do so because we are not in the city where most attention focused.”
The Facebook group has grown to almost 600 members in less than 3 weeks.
In a graphic demonstration of how bad access is today, people have been posting the results of tests measuring the download and upload speeds. The province is committed to having 95% of homes with download speeds of 50 megabits per second (Mbps) for people with wired access, and 25 Mbps for people with wireless access. Anything below these speeds qualifies you as “underserved.”
Yet in post after post on Internet Equity for all HRM, speeds are running in the single digits, sometimes even less than 1 Mbps. In addition, people report paying monthly fees as high or higher than similar packages in urban HRM for speeds as much as 10 or more times faster.
When the virus struck, Develop Nova Scotia, the province’s lead agency in addressing Internet poverty, was already well into the first phase of a program intended to bring decent Internet access to 95% or more of Nova Scotia. But in the first round of the program, not a single company chose to bid on improving service in the underserved portions of the Eastern Shore.
Develop NS has already put out an RFP for a second round, asking for bids on the Eastern Shore and other rural areas that were ignored in the first round.
In an interview, Monique Arsenault, Director of Innovation at Develop NS, said the agency expected to announce the results of this round sometime this summer. “Our mandate is to reach that greater that 95% access goal,” Arsenault, “and we’ll be pushing for 100%. If this round still leaves some areas out, then we’ll either do another around, or look at what other tools we could use to make it happen.”
On the question of the pricing of service, Arsenault said, “We do have criteria that require competitiveness of pricing. A product in a rural area has to be priced the same as a comparable product in a city center. We have service delivery agreements that we will monitor to make sure that the providers are delivering the connection speeds they promised.”
In an effort to further accelerate this process, the province recently announced an additional $15 million for this program. “We want to facilitate the removal of all the barriers we can to get the work done quicker,” Arsenault said. “And we’re also looking at finding ways to help providers relieve some of the congestion on their networks from all the additional usage.”
The federal government is preparing to shovel up to $6 billion “to help every Canadian access high-speed Internet at minimum speeds of 50/10 Mbps” over the next ten years, using a new Universal Broadband Fund.
But even with better infrastructure and access, people may still be unable to pay monthly fees of $100 or more. The province does not provide funds to subsidize Internet charges. The federal government has a program called “Connecting Families” under which families with incomes below $31,000 a year can get Internet access for $10 a month, with the government paying the rest. However, this program is only available to families who are receiving the maximum Canada Child Benefit who have received a letter authorizing them to participate.