Is expanding high-speed internet to rural Newfoundland best use of $40M?

A $40-million project to expand high-speed internet service in rural Newfoundland and Labrador is drawing mixed reactions from those who live and work there.

Business owner ready to move on from dial-up, others say funding could be better spent on health care

Internet speeds in 1,500 homes in Newfoundland and Labrador could increase tenfold after work is completed next summer. (Denis Rozhnovsky/Shutterstock)

The recent announcement of a $40-million project to expand high-speed internet service to parts of rural Newfoundland and Labrador is drawing mixed reactions from those who live and work there.

The commitment earlier this month was that 1,500 homes would be brought online through funding from the federal government and private groups.

"It's about time. People are really excited to hear this news," said Madonna Stokes, who runs a convenience store and a bed and breakfast in Fortune Harbour in Notre Dame Bay.

"In this day in age, in particular in business, the internet is essential," Stokes told CBC Radio's Central Morning Show

The owner of the Gillespie House bed and breakfast in Fortune Bay says having high-speed internet will finally bring her business into the 21st century. (booking.com)

For most of the communities slated to get the upgrade, using the internet has been like time travelling back to the 1990s, with dial-up modem access the primary way to get online. Satellite internet is an option in some areas, though usually that means a significant cost to people who subscribe to the service.

Broadband service is not a luxury, it's essential.- Madonna Stokes

Stokes said her guests expect instant bookings and online payments, not to mention actual access to high-speed Wi-Fi when they are staying in one of her rooms.

"The frustration has gone beyond business," she said. "Broadband service is not a luxury, it's essential."

Bigger priorities?

Not everyone agrees that putting broadband service into every rural community is the best way to spend millions of dollars.

Linda Hennessey, former chair of the resettlement committee for McCallum on the south coast of Newfoundland, questions whether the $406,730 price tag for putting broadband infrastructure in the area is worth it given that there are just 20 homes and people have managed without high-speed internet up to now.

McCallum on Newfoundland's south coast is slated to get broadband internet at a cost of $406,730. (morganscloud.com)

Hennessey said with resettlement very likely in McCallum in the next decade, she thinks the mostly elderly population would be better served by a financial boost to medical services. She said currently the area is lucky if it gets access to a nurse practitioner once a month.

"I understand that in our day and age the broadband is very, very important to everybody," she said. "But I think everyone should be entitled to have medical care. So in my opinion that $400,000 could go and serve the seniors that choose to remain in this community."

A full breakdown of funding for each of the 70 communities that are involved in the broadband internet expansion can be found on the Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development's website.

The expansion will take place in regions through the province, and broadband service will be offered by Bell Canada in all regions except for the Northern Peninsula, where it will be overseen by EION Inc.

Premier Dwight Ball has said the work would result in 99 per cent of the province having access to broadband internet.

With files from Central Morning