Paul MacNeill

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“Insanity,” Einstein said, “is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” The famed physicist wasn’t talking about PEI’s continued failure to deliver effective rural internet, but he could have been.

For 20 years governments of both Liberal and Conservative persuasion have promised the world to rural residents and delivered a spinning circle of frustration. Internet speeds in large swaths of the province remain an inadequate joke, despite throwing tens of millions of dollars at big telcos to fix it.

And like Einstein’s definition, with each failure we keep going back to the same corporations whose elevated promises enrich corporate pockets, but never match the hype.

We were at it again last week when Minister of Economic Growth and Tourism Matt MacKay announced a two year delay - there’s a big surprise - in what was supposed to be a three year $37 million federal-provincial investment guaranteed to solve all our problems. Announced in March 2019 by the former Liberal government, the agreement promised to connect 30,000 residents to high-speed internet.

Well, it turns out the sole-sourced contract with Bell and Xplornet, who promised to invest an equal amount to government, was far from a done deal. It was not until earlier this year that the King government signed on the dotted line, a decision history is unlikely to look fondly upon.

We also learned a $2 million a year, five-year fund, thrown in after outrage from the Island’s small but vibrant internet provider community, has been virtually ignored by the very Island companies intended to benefit. MacKay’s department failed to make the fund relevant to the needs of Island corporations.

And the reason is a chronic departmental bias toward Island internet providers while playing cosy with corporations that show little interest in the well-being of Islanders. Xplornet is no longer the New Brunswick founded service provider that grew exponentially over the last decade. It’s now owned by an American hedge fund. Bell consistently delivers one of the worst customer service experiences in the country. It’s a company that promises to solve rural internet issues but can’t figure out how to have its customer service representatives deal with both an internet and cellphone issue in the same call.

In May, MacKay’s department issued an RFP to manage internet services to provincial parks. The document was delivered May 19, with a deadline for questions of May 22, deadline for addenda May 26 and completed proposals by May 29. The province offered no latitude on the installation deadline of this June.

You can see why Island internet providers don’t trust MacKay’s department.

How can the PEI government let Bell and Xplornet off the hook for two years, effectively penalizing Islanders to unnecessary delay, but can’t extend a deadline (the RFP was dropped with no warning) allowing local service providers an opportunity to even submit a bid.

This type of approach is all too common within the bureaucracy charged with improving internet capacity. They would prefer to waste more money on ‘solutions’ that are invariably delayed and under-whelming. It was reported last week that Xplornet has yet to start installation work for the rural high-speed project.

It’s not been the best spring session for the Official Opposition, but Green leader Peter Bevan-Baker is bang on questioning why the King government is following the same failed strategy of multiple Liberal governments. By the time Bell gets around to delivering passable high speed internet, it will look like dial up compared to most other regions of the country and world.

Elon Musk, founder of Tesla, is doing more to improve rural internet than Bell and Xplornet combined. Currently there are 538 broadband internet satellites circling the globe. Eventually there will be 30,000. Musk has applied to supply 5G internet starting within a year and rural Canada is a priority market.

This is a game changer. Peter Bevan-Baker is right. Rip up the agreement with Bell and Xplornet. It’s time to eliminate bureaucratic bias and tunnel vision and support local internet providers through partnerships built on honesty and trust before it’s too late.

Paul MacNeill is Publisher of Island Press Limited. He can be contacted at paul@peicanada.com

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