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THEN AND NOW: Rural internet efforts continue as we travel the information highway in southwestern Nova Scotia

Angélique LeBlanc, CEO of the Western Regional Enterprise Network, and Evan Nemeth, economic development officer (research lead) with the Western REN. Efforts to bring high-speed internet to more rural areas remain a priority for the enterprise network.
Angélique LeBlanc, CEO of the Western Regional Enterprise Network, and Evan Nemeth, economic development officer (research lead) with the Western REN. Efforts to bring high-speed internet to more rural areas remain a priority for the enterprise network. - Eric Bourque

YARMOUTH, N.S. – Few issues have dominated the news in southwestern Nova Scotia over the past half-century more than transportation.

Whether it was ferry service, bus service, the Yarmouth airport or maybe the train (while we still had one), transportation-related topics consistently have been among the region’s biggest newsmakers.

And these days – in keeping with the “transportation” theme – much of the talk is about the information highway, notably the ongoing effort to bring high-speed internet to rural areas.

Ensuring that as many people as possible have access to broadband services remains a priority for the Western Regional Enterprise Network (REN), which has been working with a number of municipal units in the tri-county region to help make it happen.

In late 2016, the CRTC declared that broadband internet was a basic telecommunications service, and those who welcomed the ruling included the Western REN, which already had been working on bringing high-speed internet to places that didn’t have it.

“There’s a gap. The more rural you get, the bigger the gap is.”

Evan Nemeth, Western Regional Enterprise Network

Also in late 2016, the federal government announced an initiative whereby it would invest up to $500 million to bring high-speed internet to 300 rural and remote Canadian communities by 2021. The Western REN didn’t get any funding when it applied for that particular program – Connect to Innovate – but more initiatives have since been announced.

"We knew that these funding pots were coming,” said Angélique LeBlanc, CEO of the Western REN, “but they just weren’t accessible yet, so as these pools are opening up, we’re in a position now where we’re ready to hit the ground running. We have stakeholders at the table. We have the depth in terms of understanding what the technology is, where it’s needed and how to piggyback on existing infrastructure most effectively. “

The enterprise network has been working on the rural broadband issue with the municipalities of Digby, Yarmouth, Argyle and Barrington.

Evan Nemeth, economic development officer (research lead) with the Western REN, says the idea is to make the best use of public dollars, leveraging the infrastructure that’s already there.

“There’s a couple of major players in internet services in the province and the CAOs from the municipalities, as well as REN staff, have been meeting with these internet service providers to get a sense of what’s already in the region and to prepare ourselves for future funding opportunities,” he said.

Since the CRTC’s decision of late 2016, a number of rural communities received provincial funding for internet, “but it’s still a big divide,” Nemeth said. “There’s a gap. The more rural you get, the bigger the gap is.”

Addressing that gap will take lots of work and money. Referring to the $500 million Ottawa announced in December 2016, Nemeth said all of that likely could have been spent here in Nova Scotia. (The province received $17.7 million from the Connect to Innovate program.)

Given the importance of the internet, it remains a priority for the Western REN and the municipalities involved.

“To be able to do business from southwestern Nova Scotia on a global scale, it is critical that we have that information highway,” LeBlanc said. “Oftentimes, I think the downloading speed may be adequate, but when you’re uploading a paper to submit or anything like that, that’s where you run into problems, where you’re trying to meet timelines and things like that.”

They’ve heard from realtors too, she said, about how internet access can impact property values and affect people’s decision about where to live.

The good news, officials with the Western REN say, is that everyone, including all three levels of government, recognizes the importance of this issue.

Said Nemeth, “Develop Nova Scotia, the Crown corporation that’s leading this file for the province, recently said to us, ‘we’ve gathered enough information about what the problem is. We know that the problem exists and now it’s just about solving it.’”


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