Dissatisfied with local internet options, rural N.B. residents turn to satellite service
Starlink quality convinced Kevin Tory to purchase remote cabin in central N.B.
For years Kevin Tory longed to purchase a property in a remote part of New Brunswick where he could spend weeks at a time living away from his primary residence in Sackville.
What stopped him? The question of whether he'd be able to get fast, reliable internet that would allow him to continue conducting daily Zoom calls and product demos as the owner of a 30-person software development company.
"I looked at all the available options that ... I had in various parts of the province here when you're outside of the range of … a wire coming to your house, and really nothing would give me the total amount of bandwidth and give me the ping rate that I needed."
That all changed in March. Tory applied for and was offered a subscription for Starlink, the satellite internet service offered by U.S. billionaire Elon Musk's company, SpaceX.
After trying it at his Sackville home for a few months, Tory said the results allowed him to feel comfortable about purchasing a cabin in Canaan Forks, located halfway between Moncton and Fredericton.
"Suddenly I'm … in the middle of nowhere on a dirt road ... five kilometres from the nearest streetlight and I have internet, which is good enough for everything that I need to do and is indistinguishable.
"I gave a demo to a customer in Florida … and I'm sharing my screen and I can do that from a cabin … on the Canaan River. That's pretty darn good that I can do that from there."
Canada has a "major digital divide" when it comes to the quality of internet access between urban and rural areas.
New Brunswick is no exception, said Josh Tabish, spokesperson for the Canadian Internet Registration Authority, which manages the ".ca" domain.
In urban parts of the province, the median download speed for internet users is 74.2 megabits per second. Rural customers see about 13 megabits per second, he said.
High density vs. low density
The main reason is telecommunications companies typically choose not to invest in upgrading and building infrastructure in low-density rural areas, in favour of areas with higher density, Tabish said.
"So if you're … you're going to spend $100 million on broadband, you're probably going to do it where you can capture the most customers," he said.
For years the New Brunswick government has said that improving access to high-speed internet in rural communities was a priority.
In 2018, the government under former premier Brian Gallant spent $10 million to help New Brunswick-based internet provider Xplornet with its $30-million plan to provide faster internet to rural customers.
The province says that plan has led to 10,000 rural households and businesses having internet access that gives them access to speeds of at least 50 megabits and 10 megabits per second for downloads and uploads, respectively.
Last November, after Premier Blaine Higgs campaigned on the promise of increasing rural internet speeds, the province announced Xplornet would spend a further $91 million, along with an additional $40 million from a federal program, to provide 63,000 rural households with internet service of up to 100 megabit-per-second download speeds.
The province, however, won't say how far along it is in achieving that objective.
"Government recognizes the importance of broadband to the economy of the province and upgrades to the rural broadband network are a work in progress," provincial spokesperson David Kelly said in an email.
Too slow to arrive
For Leonard Madsen, those planned improvements to supply faster internet speeds to rural New Brunswickers didn't come fast enough.
After being an Xplornet internet customer for about seven years, the Keswick Ridge, N.B., resident said he ditched the company this summer in favour of Starlink.
"Imagine your internet never working, and when it did work, it was frustrating as hell," said Madsen, of his experience with Xplornet.
"If it rained, it stopped working. If it was foggy, it didn't work."
Since installing the new Starlink satellite dish in June, Madsen said the internet has performed so well, he and his family "don't even notice it anymore."
"I have a family of five, and we all use the internet. I'm a publisher and I use the internet pretty hardcore. My kids are gamers. My wife loves the internet, and we have no stress in this house," Madsen said.
Johanne Senecal, spokesperson for Xplornet, said the company has been spending money to improve the internet infrastructure it offers customers in rural New Brunswick.
On Wednesday, the company announced it was activating a 5G tower near Florenceville-Bristol, N.B., which it said would have the ability to provide customers in the area with download speeds of up to 100 megabits per second, with more towers to go up across Canada in the coming months.
However, Senecal said there are some rural residents who live in very remote areas, where Xplornet hasn't had the chance to set up infrastructure that offers high-speed internet.
That's where, she said, there's "space for competition," such as that from Starlink.
"It's a big country.… It's challenging to cover the number of Canadians in rural settings, so there is space for competition."
Service comes with some costs
There are some downsides to Starlink, however.
For one, the initial setup fee for acquiring the necessary equipment can be prohibitively expensive.
Tory said he spent close to $700 to acquire the dish needed to pick up Starlink's satellite signals.
The monthly cost of $129 before taxes, however, is about the same as he would have paid for another rural internet provider, he said.
Aside from the cost, Tabish said Starlink's internet service is also still in the beta-testing phase, with questions remaining about whether the quality will lower once more people come on board.
"And then I would also say … I think that it's really great that Starlink has entered the market, but I'm not sure that Canadians are necessarily comfortable with a foreign company controlling our communications infrastructure," Tabish said.
"So I think in the long run, we'd want to see more competition in the satellite space to help make sure that we're not … held hostage by one company."