Column: The end of an era

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It was the end of an era. A technician from BellAliant arrived on St. Patrick's Day to install DSL high speed internet service at our house. Three days later a man from Eastlink arrived to remove their equipment from outside and inside the house. We had made the decision to switch from rural broadband to DSL, which stands for digital subscriber line.

It was not an easy decision to make, as Eastlink and an earlier company, TDC Broadband, had gone where others had feared to tread. Providing rural broadband in North Queens made sense for Eastlink, which was on the receiving end of a government program to provide high speed internet service to hard-to-reach parts of Nova Scotia. We appreciated that effort and supported the service out of loyalty. I will explain in a few moments why that changed.

The company that pioneered high speed service to North Queens was TDC Broadband. The company held a public meeting in North Queens to talk about the service in 2005; by early 2006 the service was up and running. It was the first area to be hooked up by TDC but the company ran into financial difficulties, despite its innovation. This was before the province promised high speed internet to all of its residents.

That summer, the company's service went offline and online again as financial hurdles were overcome. It was up and running through the fall and winter, but by May of 2007 it looked as if it were finished. The three Cockerill brothers who worked so hard to provide North Queens with high speed internet lost their financing, and we lost our internet.

Eastlink then bid on the TDC business and won the right to take over the TDC customers. There was a trial period in the fall of 2007 where former TDC customers received broadband free from Eastlink while the kinks were worked out of the system. Eventually, the service was running properly and we were in high speed business once again. We appreciated the efforts made by both TDC and Eastlink and stayed with the service out of loyalty. Eventually, however, that loyalty became unreasonable.

The problems with our commitment to Eastlink were twofold. The first had to do with cost. Eastlink does not have phone service in North Queens, the way it does along the coast. That means that no bundle was available which would put internet and phone service together at a reasonable cost. We had to pay Eastlink for rural broadband and BellAliant for telephone service. If we got both from BellAliant, it would be much cheaper per month.

The other issue had to do with the quality of the service. DSL is a better choice than broadband, because broadband service slows down as more people sign on to use it. They share the bandwidth and the amount available reduces according to the number online. We might, for example, try to see a BBC program on BBC iPlayer on a Saturday night, but as people got online to see movies from Netflix or use their email our programs would slow down and even freeze.

Even if two people in the same house use the internet at the same time, the speed reduces proportionately with rural broadband.

The same does not occur with DSL, which is delivered over the existing telephone lines. The problem for people in rural areas is that one must be reasonably close to the BellAliant office in order to be able to use the service. We were lucky in that we were within the service area, close enough to the Caledonia office, and were able to get DSL. For those outside that circle, rural broadband is still their usual option.

Rural broadband here is delivered from a central tower in Baker Settlement to a number of smaller local towers, which then relay the signal to a small dish attached to the outside of a customer's house. Our tower was on the Broham Road, and TDC, the first company, was able to find a "sweet spot" between our trees that would enable us to pick up the tower and use the signal. Eastlink used the same spot to deliver us internet service.

There are still people in Nova Scotia who cannot get a signal from a tower, and since it is expensive to erect a tower, companies are reluctant to connect every last person who would like high speed internet service, even though that was part of the original plan by the government. For those people, one option is a turbo stick, which connects hard-to-reach people over a cellular circuit, the same one used by cell phones.

The problem with that is the expense for the customer, plus the fact that it doesn't seem to work very well. The customer pays according to the amount of data downloaded, making it very expensive to try to do something like watch a movie online. One is given an allowance of bytes of data useable per month, and if that limit is exceeded, the customer must pay quite a bit extra.

In Prince Edward Island, there is another option, based on what is called 3G and 4G cellular service. This enables customers in difficult places to get very fast internet, but it is expensive. Because the PEI government promised it would enable all citizens to have high speed internet, it has BellAliant install a hub in those homes and caps the cost at around $50 a month. The government pays anything in excess of that amount. Those customers, who live where other internet service is unavailable, get really good high speed internet, and the government gets to keep its promise to its people.

If the Nova Scotia government were prepared to do the same, my sister, who lives in an unserviced part of the Annapolis Valley, would have good internet service. As it is, she has to rely on a turbo stick, which provides poor service.

 The PEI hub speed, delivered by BellAliant with Novatel equipment, would be much faster that what users of DSL are able to get. However, we are now DSL users, and are happy to be able to count on our speeds. We can settle down and stream a program from the BBC like Foyle's War, and are able to do so without it freezing up.

We were offered a bundle from BellAliant that included television, but we said no. Who needs it? We choose what we want to see, when we want to see it. And without commercials.

- Tom Sheppard can be reached at twsheppard@gmail.com

Organizations: BBC, Novatel

Geographic location: North Queens, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island Baker Settlement Broham Road Annapolis Valley

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