Back in 2008, Aliant, the local brand of the Bell Canada telephone company, did a deal with the Province of Prince Edward Island: Aliant got to renew its communications contract with the province and in return agreed to “extend broadband services to every community in Prince Edward Island.”
In December of 2009 Aliant announced “Mission Accomplished” and published a press release titled, in part, “PEI broadband infrastructure build complete.” But over the year somehow “every community in Prince Edward Island” in the province’s original announcement had morphed into “virtually all areas of the Island” in Aliant’s.
And then, in late December, came the fine print that fleshed out the difference between “every” and “virtually all:” rather than actually installing wired broadband to every home in the Province, Aliant was opting out of the difficult bits and using its wireless cellular network-based Internet service as a sop to customers where they didn’t want to extend the wired network.
There’s been a lot of media coverage about this, culminating in a public meeting in the eastern part of the province last night where Aliant made some pricing and data cap adjustments to the wireless service to try and distract the wrath of the under-served.
What’s been largely missing in the media coverage and related discussion of this issue, however, is that Aliant is not living up to the spirit of their original agreement.
Yes, wireless Internet is “high speed” in the sense that it’s faster than dial-up.
But it’s not “broadband infrastructure.”
If it was, then Aliant wouldn’t have wasted all that money installing DSL for everyone and would have just mailed out “turbo sticks” – its wireless access dongle – to all Islanders.
Broadband infrastructure Island-wide means that I should be able to run an Internet-based business in North Lake as easily as I can in Charlottetown. It means static IP addresses, the ability to scale bandwidth as my business grows, service-level agreements.
It doesn’t (just) mean the ability to watch YouTube.
And while Aliant might have tricky euphemisms for why it’s not installing actual broadband infrastructure, if it were being honest it would simply admit that it doesn’t want to pay for it.
There’s no technical reason why absolutely every home on Prince Edward Island can’t be provided with actual wired broadband service.
There’s nothing different about the soil or the air currents or the angle of the sun in Eastern Kings that makes installing broadband there any different than in downtown Charlottetown.
It’s just requires additional investment. Investment that, apparently, Aliant believes it can dance its way out of.
All of which would be fine if Aliant were simply another Internet company making its way in a competitive marketplace.
But it’s not: it made a deal with the people of PEI. A sole-sourced deal that was allowed because of its “regional development benefits.”
I have no issue with the original deal: government used its power in the marketplace to extract benefits to Islanders at not additional costs to taxpayers. That was wise and frugal.
But if we really believe in “One Island Community, One Island Future,” we can’t let Aliant get away with this: if an Islander is an Islander is an Islander, and we’re going to commit to equal access to the network for all, then we need to call Aliant on its bluff and demand that it do the honourable thing, and make the investment it committed to, letter and spirit.