Bridg­ing the dig­i­tal di­vide

The smart­phone is now the gate­way to the in­ter­net, but ru­ral ar­eas of New­found­land still trail­ing be­hind

Northern Pen - - Front Page - DAVID HOLT SPE­CIAL TO SALTWIRE NET­WORK

John Henry Low and his wife live in the north­east United States. Re­cently, they dis­cov­ered New­found­land and Labrador, and iso­lated Bat­tle Har­bour, off the coast of Labrador, has be­come a refuge from their busy lives.

“A few weeks ago, we packed our bags and made an emer­gency trip,” he says. “The ‘ice­berg ther­apy’ did the trick.”

This story is not un­com­mon; the prov­ince has be­come some­thing of an in­ter­na­tional des­ti­na­tion. Tourists come from across the globe seek­ing the peace and beauty they don’t find at home.

Not sur­pris­ingly, when they get here, they find their cell­phones don’t al­ways pro­vide the ba­sic func­tions they rely on day to day. Besides voice, they want to take pho­tos and videos, nav­i­gate, search, and share text and im­ages. Many use the phone to keep in touch with the of­fice, the new nor­mal even for those on va­ca­tion.

On paper, the prov­ince is well cov­ered. Bell, the largest in­vestor in com­mu­ni­ca­tions in­fra­struc­ture both in At­lantic Canada and na­tion­ally, claims that 96 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion in the prov­ince is cov­ered by its wireless net­work.

Rogers, mean­while, says it con­tin­ues to in­vest in its wireless net­work, which cur­rently cov­ers a large part of the prov­ince’s pop­u­la­tion. It touts its un­lim­ited data plans through Rogers In­fi­nite, says that it was the first na­tional car­rier to launch this sort of worry-free wireless.

But it’s not a sim­ple story. A lot of the pop­u­la­tion is along the Trans Canada route from St. John’s to Port aux Basques.

“There are cell tow­ers in the larger ar­eas, but some re­gions are suf­fer­ing,” says con­sul­tant

Mark Plough­man. “In a lot of places, you drive to the top of the hill to pick up the sig­nal, oth­er­wise it drops out.”

Res­i­dents of many smaller com­mu­ni­ties get in their ve­hi­cle and drive to find bet­ter re­cep­tion.

New­found­land and Labrador is a big prov­ince, with “dead zones” com­mon on the routes less trav­elled. The six-hour drive from Goose Bay to Labrador City has no cell ser­vice. Same with the north coast and most of the North­ern Penin­sula. Trav­ellers on the Burin Penin­sula hit a dead zone for about 50 kilo­me­tres be­tween Swift Cur­rent and Marys­town.

Cell tow­ers cost about $600,000 each and have a range of about 30 kilometre.

“The car­ri­ers are busi­nesses that typ­i­cally want a one-year pay­back from cap­i­tal in­vest­ment,” says Plough­man. “Their busi­ness model is to look for in­cre­men­tal rev­enues from new sub­scribers.”

None of that works in ru­ral ar­eas.

“Still, the cell cov­er­age in New­found­land and Labrador is pretty good, con­sid­er­ing there is a low pop­u­la­tion den­sity spread over a large ter­rain with dif­fi­cult to­pog­ra­phy,” says Plough­man, who is of­ten on the road.

“The fish­ing vil­lages were founded in shel­tered coves along the coast. They tend to be basin­shaped, with ac­cess to the ocean and hills be­hind. They are shel­tered from the wind — and also from cell sig­nals.”

Ev­ery com­mu­nity would like to be within range of a tower, but in many ru­ral places, the eco­nom­ics just don’t make sense. In 2018, the pro­vin­cial govern­ment launched a cost-shared cel­lu­lar ser­vice pi­lot pro­gram that will con­trib­ute up to a max­i­mum of 25 per cent of project costs to­ward cel­lu­lar cov­er­age in­fra­struc­ture up­grades. The orig­i­nal pool of

$1 mil­lion as­sumes car­ri­ers and com­mu­ni­ties will come up with the rest.

Plough­man is a for­mer as­sis­tant deputy min­is­ter for in­no­va­tion and strategic in­dus­tries and a for­mer act­ing chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of Re­search and De­vel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion of NL. As an ADM, he had the ru­ral broad­band file.

“The pro­gram pro­vided sub­si­dies to car­ri­ers to up­grade and/ or pro­vide ser­vice in ru­ral ar­eas,” he says. “We re­al­ized that many consumers of band­width are mo­bile. But land-based ser­vices are mostly fi­bre and co-ax ca­ble. We need to im­prove ac­cess to mo­bile band­width.” It’s only been over the last 10 years that the “smart phone,” now also a minia­ture com­puter, cam­era and in­ter­net con­nec­tion, has be­come the dom­i­nant link to the dig­i­tal world. Most of the plat­form com­pa­nies, as they are called, qui­etly piv­oted their strate­gies to fo­cus on th­ese de­vices. While the hard­ware is bril­liant and rel­a­tively cheap, it’s soft­ware that drives the in­dus­try. Voice ser­vice is just one fea­ture of a com­plex pack­age.

What’s more, most of the pro­grams we take for granted are de­signed to be ad­dic­tive, each one quickly adapt­ing to the us­age pat­terns of the in­di­vid­ual. The short ver­sion: most of us can’t live with­out our phones.

BUILD­ING BUSI­NESS

In ru­ral ar­eas, re­li­able cell ser­vice is needed to at­tract and re­tain both res­i­dents and busi­nesses. It’s a de­mo­graphic is­sue, too: younger peo­ple, es­pe­cially, de­mand it, and they are the fu­ture.

But there’s a catch. Build it and they will come — but not nec­es­sar­ily. Cell ser­vice is just one of the pa­ram­e­ters of a thriv­ing com­mu­nity.

Tony Keats, the pres­i­dent of Mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties New­found­land and Labrador, is based in Dover, about 40 min­utes from Gan­der. The or­ga­ni­za­tion cov­ers 276 in­cor­po­rated towns.

“There is a so­cial need to talk to the fam­ily and an eco­nomic need to­day where busi­nesses can’t op­er­ate with­out cell ser­vice,” he says. “It re­ally hurts the abil­ity of tourism op­er­a­tors where vis­i­tors ex­pect to be able to use their cell­phones, to use debit cards and In­terac. When they find out the cell ser­vice is spotty at the best of times, it takes them back.”

He also cites safety is­sues along the long sec­tions of high­way where there is no ser­vice. Still, Keats is op­ti­mistic.

“The fed­eral govern­ment set up a new min­istry of Ru­ral Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment, to en­sure ru­ral broad­band and cell cov­er­age are avail­able across the coun­try. We’ve been ad­vo­cat­ing that for a long time.”

Cliff Rowe, owner of Fogo Is­land Freight, has been in the trucking busi­ness for 49 years. His com­pany has nine trucks that work through­out New­found­land and Labrador.

“We de­pend on cell­phone ser­vice, which is not that great in ru­ral ar­eas,” he says. “I’m on an is­land. We don’t have good cell ser­vice here. There are cell tow­ers in place, but cov­er­age is spotty. We of­ten lose the sig­nal. It’s a nui­sance in this day and age. It should be a bet­ter set up.”

The trick in his busi­ness, he says, is to know where there is no sig­nal. His driv­ers pull over to use lo­cal Wi-Fi. Back at the of­fice, he knows where his driv­ers are and works around the dead zones.

“I know when they have a sig­nal when they don’t.”

ROAD WAR­RIORS

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