Nova Scotia County’s Internet Project Balloons to $95 Million

Pictou County embarked on an ambitious project in 2020 to provide affordable high-speed internet to over 100 rural communities, aiming initially to serve about 4,700 customers in underserved areas. This initiative, unique in Nova Scotia, contrasts with the rest of the province’s rural internet, provided through Build Nova Scotia and companies like Bell and Eastlink.

Local resident Marc Hanna expressed his frustration over the prolonged installation of a high-speed fibre connection by the local municipality, a project he was initially enthusiastic about six years ago. Due to delays, Hanna opted for SpaceX’s Starlink satellite service in 2020 and doubts he will switch to the local network upon its completion, reports CBC News.

Pictou County’s population as of 2021 was at just under 44,000 residents.

Hanna compared his situation with his in-laws in Guysborough County, who have already received their fibre connection through Build Nova Scotia. He expressed skepticism about the financial viability of the Pictou County project, citing its escalating costs, now estimated at $95 million. Hanna remarked, “The cost is really just unbelievable. I really can’t imagine how the municipality will ever make their money back.”

The project, partly funded by the federal and provincial governments, has experienced significant delays and cost overruns. Brian Cullen, the county’s chief administrative officer, revealed that the completion for the first 4,700 homes is now expected by 2027, with the 17 wireless towers set to be completed by the end of this year. The county plans to incur approximately $50 million in debt for the project, having already spent $28 million.

Despite these challenges, Cullen remains optimistic, noting an 18% adoption rate among the initial customer base and a long-term goal of reaching 40% of the 12,000 homes in the service area. Warden Robert Parker emphasized that municipal taxpayer money is not directly involved, as the project is funded through debt. Nonetheless, federal and provincial taxpayers are funding the project that has seen cost overruns and delays.

Hanna’s experience reflects a growing preference for satellite internet options like Starlink, which he expects to become more affordable with emerging competition. He anticipates a future need for a bailout, given the rapid evolution of technology and the potential depreciation of the fibre network.

At a recent council meeting, concerns were raised about the project’s cost increase of approximately $25 million. Mike Richard of Digital Ubiquity blamed the delays to permit and permission issues with Nova Scotia Power and the province. Despite these setbacks, the municipality hopes to see a return on its investment in the long term, with potential annual revenues between $5 million and $7 million after the debt is paid off in 20 years.

Parker and Cullen view satellite internet not as competition but as a complementary solution in areas beyond the reach of their network. The municipal project offers internet packages right now that start at $50/month for speeds of 25 Mbps download/5 Mbps upload and $80/month for $50 Mbps download/10 Mbps upload, with plans for an open-access network to rent space to outside providers.

Currently, Starlink costs $499 for a hardware kit (or $250 CAD for a refurbished kit), plus a $140 CAD monthly fee, for download and upload speeds ranging from 50-150 Mbps and 5-25 Mbps, with no bandwidth caps or contracts, and 30-day moneyback guarantee.

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