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ESREN, Antigonish County work to improve service

Veteran Municipality of the County of Antigonish councillor Mary MacLellan looking over some of the articles and other notes, documents and papers, she has collected over the years regarding problems with internet and cell phone service in the county. MacLellan has championed a lot of effort on behalf of council, which continues to seek answers for better coverage.
Veteran Municipality of the County of Antigonish councillor Mary MacLellan looking over some of the articles and other notes, documents and papers, she has collected over the years regarding problems with internet and cell phone service in the county. MacLellan has championed a lot of effort on behalf of council, which continues to seek answers for better coverage. - Richard MacKenzie

Amidst all the angst about internet and cell phone service around the rural parts of the region, Eastern Strait Regional Enterprise Network (ESREN) chief executive officer John Beaton talks about a positive development in the last year; a broadband trust of $120 million.

Beaton was referring to an announcement by Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil last March.

“We should be able to deliver to about 95 per cent of Nova Scotians the quality, high-speed internet that they deserve, quite frankly, that they require,” McNeil, quoted at the time of the announcement, said.

“It will allow Nova Scotians, regardless of where they live, to aspire to achieve whatever it is, whether it is in business or whether it is educational, that they choose to do," he added.

With the announcement, ESREN started a broadband file to begin their fiscal year (April 1).

“We established a broadband committee or task force that focuses on trying to move the agenda forward and that includes our municipal reps, IT skills and expertise, locally, with broadband technology; we meet pretty regularly,” Beaton said.

“We have even brought in some outside expertise to help us look at what we do here as a potential solution. We’ve been liaising with Develop Nova Scotia who is now responsible for putting out the trust, once it’s released.”

Beaton said a lot has been learned already, through the process.

“For example, it’s very unlikely projects will be approved if they don’t involve some sort of private sector involvement, the internet service providers,” he said.

“Another thing we’re learning is that they want to see a collaborative approach between municipalities, instead of individual municipalities doing applications from everywhere, every time. They want to see a solution which covers as much ground as possible. Those are some of the early indications of what is happening.”

He noted another positive was an announcement by Central Nova MP Sean Fraser that there would likely be a federal component too.

“So, it’s more likely you’ll see the province do one-third, than the feds do a third and then private sector/municipality putting in a third; that is how it’s kind of shaping up,” Beaton said.

“So we’re trying to collect as much information at this point and time as we can, about where the serious gaps are and how it impacts business. We’re finding with all the businesses we speak to, through our Business Now program, they’re being impacted by either not having internet or having a slow connection speed.”

Beaton said while better broadband service has always been “on the agenda” for ESREN, only now is there money in place for them to start making inroads on the problem.

“We didn’t have this as part of our strategic planning process because we couldn’t do anything about it without the funding,” he said. “Now it is a number one priority for us and we’ll be working directly with our municipal partners in the private sector to try and get as many of these projects rolled out as quickly as possible.”

He used the word “optimistic.”

“Very optimistic; things are happening and coming together,” he said. “How we work jointly on these projects is what is going to make them successful or not.

“Basically, at this point, our message is things are moving, are happening. As far as details, when will you get a better service? We don’t have the answer for that right now but, at this point, they (people raising concerns) have something they didn’t have a year or two ago, a commitment to move forward.”

Strong partner

The Municipality of the County of Antigonish also has the internet and cell phone service problem firmly in their sights.

“The County has been working on cellular, in particular, for a number of years,” Shirlyn Donovan, strategic initiatives co-ordinator for Antigonish County, said in an email response to the Casket.

She noted, in particular, a May 2016 motion where council agreed to allocate $135,000, over a three-year period, towards the erection of two cell phone towers in the District #1 and #2 areas, contingent on funding from the provincial and federal governments.

“We have been actively seeking funds from provincial and federal governments since this motion was made and are yet to be successful,” Donovan said.

“We are continuing to work with ESREN and other regional partners on both cellular and broadband initiatives and, again, actively seeking partnership with the provincial and federal governments. We met with both MLA Randy Delorey and MP Sean Fraser on Monday (Aug. 20) to discuss broadband internet and funding opportunities going forward.”

She alluded to the same funding Beaton spoke of.

“There are opportunities for funding on the horizon, but there is still a lot of work to do,” Donovan said.

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