Coronavirus has exacerbated the issue of internet access in rural Maritime communities

Click to play video: 'Pandemic reveals gap in access to high-speed internet' Pandemic reveals gap in access to high-speed internet
WATCH: In the Maritimes, access to high-speed internet in rural communities was always an issue. With online work and learning, it’s clear many areas are missing tools and resources. Jesse Thomas has the story. – Jun 15, 2020

Since moving back to Nova Scotia five years ago, Shanna Joudrey has always had an issue when it comes to internet access.

Joudrey runs Details Events & Design Studio, an event and wedding planning company, from her home in Branch LaHave, a small community located 15 minutes northeast of Bridgewater, N.S.

READ MORE: Feds announce $40 million to improve New Brunswick’s rural internet

“Accessing the internet has become really challenging,” said Joudrey. “There are many days when I’m sitting in my home office and the connection has been unstable.”

Just as the coronavirus pandemic has forced many to self-isolate and work from home, Joudrey says many of her clients are looking for support and services online, like video conference calls and virtual tours, which is challenging to offer given her current connection.

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Like many Nova Scotians living in rural communities, access to high-speed internet doesn’t reach Joudrey’s home yet, but with some co-operation from a neighbour, she’s been able to access a more reliable internet speed. It’s complicated, though, and a tad finicky.

“This is where our wireless internet signal is coming in,” says Joudrey, pointing to an antenna her husband installed at the top of a telephone pole at the corner of their property.

“Our wireless signal is actually coming from our neighbours who are just up over the hill.”

Down the road, there’s another antenna that works as a transmitter and sends a signal to Joudrey’s receiver, which provides the family with its internet service.

But two weeks ago, the internet crashed and Joudrey was offline for five days.

The troubleshooting process was a headache, to say the least.

“We contacted the internet provider and they said, ‘Well, you know, the leaves are just coming out on the trees, so it could be something like that, where the leaves are interrupting with the internet signal,'” she said.

But it wasn’t the leaves.

READ MORE: Province to issue tender to see broadband, cellular expanded in rural, northern Manitoba

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Their neighbours who live down the street were doing renovations at their home and the contractor they hired had unknowingly unplugged their wireless system, which they rely on for their signal.

“Living in rural Nova Scotia has become a bit of a headache, to be honest,” said Joudrey.

She and her husband have thought about moving to a bigger city, but they like their rural lifestyle, and their family home was built by her father.

Andrew Button knows the pain.

Button’s the founder and CEO of Mashup Lab, a business incubator that helps rural entrepreneurs get their business ideas off the ground.

He says a lack of affordable and reliable internet can be a major setback for a startup and the COVID-19 pandemic has only revealed deeper issues with internet access in rural communities.

“Everybody has been forced back into their homestead,” said Button. “Which has taken a challenging issue and made it worse.”

Button says the pandemic has shifted the economy and marketplace online and along with that, consumers are looking for services on the internet. It’s up to businesses to adjust.

Without reliable internet access, some businesses are being left behind, furthering the digital divide between rural and urban centres, Button says, and it’s hurting rural communities.

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“It is definitely stifling what I see as the potential of the entrepreneurial and innovation potential of rural places,” he said.

Button thinks back 100 years and says the solution today will only come through revolutionary infrastructure changes.

“We invested heavily in the infrastructure a couple hundred years ago, that unlocked the economic potential of our country,” he said. “When we think of rail and roads and bridges that’s the infrastructure we need to invest in, in the 21st century, it’s the digital highways.”

Access to the internet is the Municipality of the District of Lunenburg’s (MODL) number one priority, says director of business Dave Waters. He says he receives complaints about the internet service daily.

READ MORE: Canada’s newest minister says high-speed internet is a ‘necessity’ but can she deliver in rural areas?

To limit the growing digital divide, the Internet for Nova Scotia Initiative has earmarked $193 million to connect more homes and businesses in rural areas and is the largest investment by any province.

“Rural Nova Scotia has a massive challenge because we have too many hills and too many pine trees,” which makes it tough for tower signals to get around the rocky landscape, Waters said.

But work is ongoing, as some residents of the District of Lunenburg have gained new access to the internet through fibre-optic cables being installed, Waters said, while other residents like Joudrey receive their internet through a signal from fixed internet towers.

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Waters says an Eastlink fibre project is nearly complete and has connected about 250 homes, while work continues on building four more internet towers like the seven that are currently in place.

By the end of summer, Waters says the internet development project will provide reliable internet access to 72 percent of MODL residents.

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