New Brunswick

Details are few on province's plan for high-speed internet in rural New Brunswick

The Higgs government wants to expand high speed internet across rural areas. Not much more is known about the plan.

Rural island residents and others await word on how Blaine Higgs will deliver on election promise

A Proximity Fiber bucket truck. The company has plans to expand fiber optic internet service across islands. (Howard Small, submitted)

This past Tuesday, the president and co-owner of New Brunswick high speed internet provider, Proximity Fiber, headed out from his Grand Manan office in one of the company vehicles, a bucket truck.

Howard Small would spend the day working alongside Proximity's only technician, stringing fibre optic lines along highway poles while hooking up four new clients.

Small and his wife, Rebecca, own and manage what could be the smallest fibre internet provider in New Brunswick.

The company has 325 customers in total. But some are still linked to older, much slower, wireless internet service. To bring the far faster fibre link to those homes, he's spending a lot of time these days up in the bucket.    

"Not only do I go up in them but I sometimes fix them as well," said the resourceful businessman, who once welded a cracked exhaust pipe on the company's 2007 GMC after getting a $2,000 quote from a garage. 

"We didn't have $2,000. And to be honest, there's a lot of times we don't have $2,000," Small said.

The couple brought fibre internet to the Island in 2018 after raising money through a private investor and building a microwave link to Blacks Harbour, 32 kilometres away on the mainland.

Their project has received no government assistance.

But they now have bigger plans, and the next phase is going to require considerable help.

Fibre optics for the Fundy Islands

Small wants to bring direct fibre service to nearby Campobello and Deer Islands as well as to the tiny, coastal mainland communities of Back Bay, Letang and L'Etete, all areas badly in need of service, particularly during the COVID era.

"We've literally had people call and you could pretty much tell that they were crying," he said.

The Smalls have placed the proposal before CRTC regulators and have had talks with both the provincial and federal governments about funding. 

There are already fibre op lines linking the Fundy islands, thanks to NB Power, which piggy-backed the wire alongside its own new underwater electrical cables.

The Grand Manan company would pick up from there, stringing the lines directly to homes and businesses.

If approved and financed, Proximity Fiber's potential client network would expand to 2,500 homes.

But it's going to require an investment of "several million" dollars.

In the meantime, the province's plans to assist rural Internet expansion remain vague. 

Howard and Rebecca Small, with daughter Cade. (Howard Small, submitted)

While Blaine Higgs talked of expanding rural internet speeds to 70,000 homes during the election campaign, that project, with Woodstock-based Xplornet, had already been announced in 2018.

Details of any further initiatives aren't known.

Higgs also said during the campaign that the government is in talks with ACOA to pursue a provincewide 5G network.

Provincewide 5G would rely on towers to beam internet service into rural homes. Speeds would improve dramatically but are likely to remain slower than those of fibre or cable unless considerable investment is made to place the towers close together.

Mary-Anne Hurley-Corbyn, director of communications for the Regional Development Corporation, says the plan for rural internet service expansion, beyond the Xplornet deal, is "full on hard press" and the province is considering a full range of technologies to provide the service.

N.S. Crown corporation aims for 100% coverage

Across the Bay of Fundy, the province of Nova Scotia has a clear head start when it comes to high speed internet.

In 2018, that province handed responsibility for expanding rural broadband service to the Crown corporation, Develop Nova Scotia.

It also gave the corporation access to $193 million in funding through the Nova Scotia Internet Funding Trust.

The Crown corporation now issues calls for proposals to a group of 15 registered companies and organizations to supply high speed services to specific parts of the province.

And the Corporation doesn't fuss much about the method by which the job gets done.

Fibre op? Cable? Fixed wireless towers? Although wireless is slower, it's also less costly. Whatever best serves local needs for the best value will in theory get the nod.

Trust fund money, and the occasional federal contribution, are then used to leverage infrastructure investment from the internet provider.

The immediate goal in Nova Scotia, which already ranks fourth in Canada in terms of connectivity, is to bring high speed access to 97 per cent of homes by 2022.

Premier Blaine Higgs on election night, Sept 14. Details on plans for expansion of high speed rural internet remain vague. (Andrew Vaughan, Canadian Press)

"We're looking to push that even further," said Monique Arsenault, Develop Nova Scotia's director of alignment. "We want to get as close to a hundred [per cent] as we can."

"We do anticipate that when we finish that work we will be, if not first in Canada, very high among the first, and something that we're quite proud of here in the province."

Without high speed internet, computer 'a paperweight'

Back in New Brunswick corporations like Bell, Rogers, and Xplorenet, are ready to jump in if new rural initiatives are announced.

Howard and Rebecca Small want Proximity Fiber to be part of that mix, potentially expanding beyond the Fundy region to inland rural areas of the province.

Justin Tinker is watching these developments closely. He spent the first 30 years of his life on Campobello Island, and is now a Saint John-based advocate of high speed access and year-round ferry service for the isolated communities on the island where much of his family still lives.

Simple online work, research, and creative tasks done within minutes elsewhere are impossible on the island.

Like the people at Develop Nova Scotia, he doesn't favour any particular technology.

He just wants good internet service for Campobello as soon as possible.

Tinker is impressed by what he's seeing happening on nearby Grand Manan but worries Proximity Fiber won't get the support it needs to open up the Fundy Isles.

"It's increasingly putting the island, the island's businesses, the island's students, at a competitive disadvantage compared to the mainland," he said.

"I could have the best computer on planet Earth, and on a Campobello Island internet connection it's a paperweight."

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said the NB Power cable linked the Fundy Islands to the mainland. The links are between Deer Island, Campobello Island and Grand Manan.
    Oct 01, 2020 4:48 PM AT

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Connell Smith is a reporter with CBC in Saint John. He can be reached at 632-7726 Connell.smith@cbc.ca

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