Bridging the digital divide
The smartphone is now the gateway to the internet, but rural areas of Newfoundland still trailing behind
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.
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.”