Green Opposition Leader Peter Bevan-Baker is urging the province to renegotiate its $74-million deal to bring high-speed internet to rural Islanders in order to provide broadband on a quicker timeframe.
In the legislature on Friday, Bevan-Baker challenged Economic Growth Minister Matthew MacKay to revisit an agreement signed with Bell and Xplornet to improve rural internet across the province. The agreement was finalized in March.
“The timelines on the completion in that agreement mean that some rural Islanders could wait years before seeing any improvement to their services, and that’s just simply not acceptable in a world where COVID has put an increased amount (of importance) on having workable internet from your home,” Bevan-Baker told the legislature on Friday.
Bell’s part of the agreement will see improved internet for 9,422 households in several communities, including Rustico, Tyne Valley, Montague and New Haven. This work is slated to be completed by June 2021, but 5,000 of these households will see improved internet by year-end.
Xplornet’s plan involves providing improved wireless and fibre high-speed internet to 20,000 homes and is not expected to be complete before Aug 31, 2023.
MacKay acknowledged Xplornet’s work is still in the planning stages.
“As of right now, Bell has started their process. The infrastructure is going in, in some communities across P.E.I., as we speak. Xplornet is updating their plan on what it looks like, and hopefully in the next 30-40 days we will be able to have a better response,” MacKay said.
In an interview, Bevan-Baker said the wait for improved internet is still unacceptable to families who have been living with COVID-19. Many rely on fast internet for work or to allow their children to continue their schooling.
"The problem with the new agreement, signed by this minister, is that the timelines associated with that are pathetically long," Bevan-Baker said.
"We have years and years where rural Islanders – and when I say rural Islanders, we're talking about people 10 minutes outside Charlottetown, 20 minutes outside Summerside – are not going to get good, reliable internet service to their home."
MacKay did not commit to a renegotiation of the deal with Bell or Xplornet.
But he said the province is also looking at putting up its own local wireless service towers to serve areas where there may be bigger gaps in high-speed internet.
"We feel the only way it's going to get rectified, to the full ability, is to get some government involvement in infrastructure," MacKay said.
MacKay also confirmed that staff members within the Premier’s Office have reached out to Starlink, a satellite internet service being launched by Elon Musk. The company has applied for a telecom licence in Canada and is slated to be available in rural parts of Canada and the U.S. later this year.
“I know they're still waiting on approvals, but we're certainly hopeful that could play into with us as well," MacKay said in an interview.
The agreement signed with both Bell and Xplornet does not tie either company to a timeline for the broadband improvements. But they cannot generate revenue until the work is completed.
Neither company has had government funding withheld due to COVID-related delays in the work, MacKay said.
"We're going to hold the two big companies, their feet to the fire. If they don't provide the service they’re supposed to, we'll be going a different avenue," MacKay said.
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