Rural internet service a riddle, wrapped in a mystery

By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    
May 6 2020

SHERBROOKE – When British Prime Minister Winston Churchill characterized one of the greatest questions of the 20th century as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” he was talking about Russia.

These days, if Sherbrooke administrator Marvin MacDonald or Cherry Hill entrepreneur Leigh MacFarlane – or, indeed, almost any other computer-savvy local resident – were to deploy the same metaphor, they’d be talking about rural internet, St. Mary’s style.

Across this geographically broad, lightly populated municipal district of Nova Scotia, slow service – or even no service – is commonplace in a world that increasingly relies on blink-fast download and upload times. Precautions against COVID-19, which have sent many people home, have only exacerbated the situation. Meanwhile, government and industry assurances that they are working to fix the problem have done little to answer the bigger question: What, exactly, is going on here?

“The internet has always been a problem here, and it’s been hard to get answers,” says MacDonald, District of St. Mary’s Chief Administrative Officer. “Of course, in the past month or so there’s been more internet usage. Even in here in the (municipal) office, we’re experiencing slower times. We haven’t received phone calls about it, but in our daily lives, people have expressed how frustrating it is.”

Eighteen kilometres from Sherbrooke, Nova Scotia Soap Company owner and President Leigh MacFarlane – who actually pays for high-speed service from Xplornet of Woodstock, NB – sometimes finds herself drifting into in a meditative state as she waits a bewilderingly long time for her shipping labels to process online. “I actually click the button and take a breath,” she says. “There’s no sense in getting anxious.”

MacFarlane doesn’t quibble with the company’s services – or even service claims – as far as they go. But she does wonder how many definitions of “high-speed” apply in St. Mary’s. “So, I’m using air quotes when I say Port Bickerton has ‘high-speed,' Sherbrooke has ‘high-speed,' Glenelg has ‘high-speed,’” she says. “On the other hand, it’s not high-speed enough for some people who live in those places to qualify for things like convergence (telephone, video and data communications bundled within a single network). They wouldn’t be able to pass the speed test for that. So, that has a direct impact on access to employment opportunities.”

Then, there’s the cost riddle. “If I was in Sherbrooke, maybe 18 clicks away, I would pay 960 bucks a year before usage on the phone for the exact same service I have now. The cost differential for me is about $1,500 annually. And those are real numbers. But Bell doesn’t offer internet where I live even though it goes right by my door.”

According to Isabelle Boulet, a spokesperson for Halifax-based Bell Aliant, the company does offer DSL internet (high-speed through telephone lines) and wireless service “in communities within the district of St. Mary’s. For example, DSL is available in the communities of Melrose, Liscombe, Sherbrooke and Port Bickerton.”

Regarding service, she says, “We’ve been upgrading network capacity on an ongoing basis. Home internet usage is up the most – up to 60 per cent higher than usual during the day as people work remotely and stream more, up to 20 per cent higher than usual at night. We’re maintaining 99.99+ per cent overall availability across our networks despite the growing demand.”

Regarding cost, she adds, “As part of our response to the COVID-19 situation, we’re waiving any additional usage fees for all residential internet customers not already on unlimited plans, including all customers in the Connecting Families program. And our consumer and small business customers using Turbo Hubs, Turbo Sticks and MiFi devices, mostly located in rural and remote locations, are receiving extra usage and billing credits.”

Parker Donham, a spokesperson for Sydney-based Seaside Communications, which serves 395 household and business customers in St. Mary’s with basic and high-speed service, suggests part of the problem is structural: It’s just harder to accurately predict future demand, costs and network requirements in rustic marketplaces.

“One thing we’ve learned about providing internet access in rural Nova Scotia is that demand for bandwidth constantly increases,” he says. “We respond on a day-to-day basis by continuously monitoring the network and making changes as needed to increase capacity on our microwave backhaul links. The COVID lockdown has definitely increased traffic.”

Meanwhile, both the provincial and federal governments maintain economic development programs specifically designed to modernize and expand telecommunications infrastructure in unserved or underserved communities like St. Mary’s. MacDonald, at least, thinks that’s encouraging. But he’s not alone in also thinking the real problem might be simpler than market projections, technical complications, network capacity, or even access to investment capital.

“My fear is that the smaller rural areas are just going to get overlooked.”

And there’s no riddle, mystery or enigma about that.