Nova Scotia

N.S. seafood companies say 'extremely frustrating' internet service affecting business

Those in Nova Scotia's seafood and aquaculture industry say the sector should be a priority for high-speed internet, but the Crown agency handling rural internet expansion says the need is too great across the province to favour one area or sector — even the province's leading export.

Companies say they're struggling to send emails and photos or take part in video conferencing with customers

Osborne Burke, general manager of Victoria Co-operative Fisheries Ltd., at work in his office. (Matthew Moore/CBC)

When Osborne Burke wants to email a colour brochure to a customer in Asia from his seafood processing company in northern Cape Breton, he first tells everyone in the office to shut their computers down.

Then, he asks the business next door — a local pharmacy — to do the same.

Burke, the general manager of the Victoria Co-operative Fisheries in New Haven, said that gives his business's sluggish internet service "enough get-up-and-go" to get the email into the customer's inbox. 

"It is extremely frustrating trying to carry on international business and our customers can't understand why we can't send them a document or deal with them electronically," he said.

The lobster and snow crab processor employs 130 people with annual sales between $30 million and $40 million, and it's one of a number of seafood processors and aquaculture companies that gave their internet and cell service an unfavourable rating in a recent industry survey.

Nova Scotia is in the process of expanding high-speed internet access to rural areas of the province as part of a $193-million program. 

Given the industry's economic importance, those in the seafood and aquaculture industry say the sector should be a priority for high-speed internet, but the Crown agency handling rural internet expansion says the need is too great across the province to favour one area or sector over another — even the province's leading export.

"It would be very difficult to put one need, even one very important sector, above the others. They're all important," said Jennifer Angel, CEO of Develop Nova Scotia.

"What we have done is tasked our private-sector internet service provider partners with telling us what is the most efficient way to roll this out across the province, so we get everyone as quickly as we can."

As part of the industry survey, members of the Nova Scotia Seafood Alliance and the Aquaculture Association of Nova Scotia were asked to rate their internet and cell service on a scale from one to five, with one being lowest. They were also asked to provide upload and download speeds.

The survey received responses from 32 seafood companies and 38 aquaculture companies this spring.

More than a third of the seafood processors who responded gave low ratings for internet quality, and more than half were unhappy with their cell service, according to the results, which were sent to the provincial government and shared with CBC News.

Members of the aquaculture industry were slightly more satisfied, although nine companies rated their internet service at the bottom. Three reported they were unable to run their internet.

The Aquaculture Association of Nova Scotia said it had to contact several members by phone because the email telling them about the internet survey did not get through.

"It's maddening on a daily basis," said Stewart Lamont of Tangier Lobster on the Eastern Shore. "We are asked to be part of Zoom calls and various conference calls, and there are times in which it really doesn't function. So it impacts every aspect of our business."

Lamont said clients in Asia require multiple documents with attachments for every transaction, which can be excruciatingly slow. He reported an internet download speed of 1.68 Mbps — fast enough for basic web browsing and emailing. His company's upload speed is 0.49 Mbps, which isn't enough for webcam video streams.

The province has said it aims to expand high-speed internet coverage to 99 per cent of Nova Scotia by 2023 — "a lifetime away," said Lamont.

"It's particularly concerning because we're an hour and 10-minute drive from Spring Garden Road in Halifax. So we're not in the hinterlands, but our service is really substandard," he said.

The biggest aquaculture company in the region has not waited for the provincial government.

In 2017, Cooke Aquaculture installed a 30-metre tower in Shelburne for wireless remote feeding and live camera feeds at salmon farm sites in the area.

In collaboration with Bell Canada, Cooke has erected six cell towers in Nova Scotia — and several more in other Atlantic provinces — where internet connectivity either did not exist or was inadequate to support its salmon farming operations.

Sandy Point Lobster in the Shelburne area just got fibre optic internet from Bell in February as part of Develop Nova Scotia's rollout.

Plant engineer Bob Isaksen said the difference has been night and day. He said there were times before the upgrades that the business would be offline all day.

That was particularly problematic when it came to shipping lobsters across the border.

"We had to send paperwork down to our customs brokers and if that couldn't get there, the trucks couldn't get through the border," said Isaksen. "It was really a difficult thing to try to operate with a very, very slow internet."