MLAs given copy of P.E.I. internet contract — minus some details

A dozen MLAs were provided copies of a controversial contract between Bell Aliant and the P.E.I. government at a legislative committee meeting Thursday morning.

Province denies request to provide complete copies as meeting gets heated

Liberal MLA Bush Dumville (middle), chair of the legislative committee, told a PC MLA to leave the meeting when discussions became heated on Thursday. (Kerry Campbell/CBC)

A dozen MLAs were provided copies of a controversial contract between Bell Aliant and the P.E.I. government at a legislative committee meeting Thursday morning.

The 8.2 million contract was signed in 2008. It includes an agreement for Bell Aliant to expand broadband internet access to rural communities in P.E.I. In exchange, the P.E.I. government agreed to use Bell Aliant as its local service phone provider.

Islanders in rural areas of the province have complained in the years since about inadequate internet service, even though government said in 2010 that rural broadband internet access was available all across the Island.

Two weeks ago, PC MLAs accused government of trying to cover up details of the contract after they were told the document could not be made public.

PC MLA told to leave

Thursday's meeting once again became heated, with chair Bush Dumville at one point telling PC MLA Brad Trivers to leave. The Opposition told Dumville he couldn't remove members from the meeting and Trivers stayed put.

The P.E.I. Opposition says many Islanders are frustrated with the poor quality of their internet service. (Denis Rozhnovsky/Shutterstock)

Opposition motions demanding an unredacted version of the contract were defeated by the Liberal majority on the committee.

Dollar figures were removed from the contract provided to MLAs. Another motion seeking dollar figures for how much the province has paid as a result of the contract going back to 2008 was also defeated.

The committee did agree to call representatives of Bell Aliant and Economic Development Minister Health MacDonald to speak at a future meeting.

Service can be "downgraded" in 2020

The contract released today shows the deal between the province and Bell Aliant has been amended — and extended — twice. Provisions for Bell Aliant to install fibre optic networks in a number of Island communities. What was originally a five-year deal for phone service has been extended to 11 years, expiring December 31, 2019.

In 2013 the rate structure the province pays for phone service was adjusted — presumably upwards — "in order for the province to fund Bell Aliant's FibreOp and DSL expansion on Prince Edward Island," according to the document. The actual amounts have been redacted.

The 2013 amendment also included a clause stipulating "Bell Aliant shall have no restriction on downgrading the broadband services" once the agreement expires at the end of 2019.

Too slow for business: Trivers

In terms of connection speed, the contract says the broadband network Bell Aliant was to create would be limited to "standard DSL services (typically up to 1.5 Mbps)."

Trivers said some of his constituents are getting speeds far lower than 1.5 megabits per second, and that he hears constant complaints about internet speed and reliability.

"It's one of the top issues if not the top issue in the district," he said, noting his Charlottetown office gets internet speeds up to 100 times faster than some of his rural constituents.

"It really doesn't allow you to effectively use the internet for all of the things modern society uses the internet for," he said. "And of course probably one of the most important of those is trying to run a business in rural P.E.I."

'Speeds of up to 1 gigabyte'

Last week Bell Aliant provided an email to CBC in which it said its Fibe network, then called Fibre-OP, is available to 70 per cent of Island households and "offers speeds up to 1 gigabyte."

The email also says that hard wired high-speed networks reach approximately 99.8% of P.E.I. households and that the remaining households can get wireless internet.

In 2010, Bell Aliant told a P.E.I. legislative committee the company spent $8.3 million to build the infrastructure to provide high-speed internet service throughout the province. But the company wouldn't reveal how much the government phone service contract was worth, saying it was "competitive information."