LA MALBAIE, Que. — When the limousines, security guards, helicopters and politicians leave Quebec’s Charlevoix region after next month’s 44th annual G7 summit, its citizens will benefit from a significant technological legacy.
The federal government is spending roughly $15 million in subsidies to Bell Canada for the construction of 13 cellphone towers along part of the route G7 leaders will take from their arrival at Saguenay-Bagotville Airport to their hotel in La Malbaie.
Ottawa is also investing another $6 million for Bell to lay fibre optic cable around La Malbaie in order to provide G7 heads of state and their entourages with high-speed internet access during the June 8-9 summit.
But when the conference is over, Bell will continue to offer 2,500 homes and business internet speeds up to one gigabit per second, said a company spokesperson — a rarity in small Quebec towns and rural areas.
Driving through the mountainous terrain of Charlevoix, a scenic region of roughly 30,000 people about 150 kilometres northeast of Quebec City along the coast of the St. Lawrence River, cellphone coverage often cuts out.
And some La Malbaie residents say they know of friends in rural areas who are still using dial-up internet.
La Malbaie Mayor Michel Couturier says the region will finally have consistent cellphone coverage outside the more densely populated areas as well as “Formula One internet.”
“You go 20 kilometres away from here and in the mountains, cellphone coverage was difficult,” Couturier said during a recent interview at his office in the town centre.
If not for the G7, he said, “there would never have been (solid) cellphone coverage in these areas — or maybe only years from now.”
Nine of the 13 cellphone towers were in service as of early May, said Alexandra Young, spokesperson for the summit’s management office at Global Affairs Canada.
Bell’s fibre optic cable is helping to solve a major problem facing Quebecers who live outside the big cities: how to keep young people from leaving the regions and encourage them to start businesses where they were born and grew up.
“I can’t sell you an urban lifestyle,” said Couturier, looking out his office window to the wide waters of the St. Lawrence River.
For a young professional who likes to ski, go kayaking surrounded by beluga whales, or make a fire outside their house at night and who is also planning an online business, La Malbaie is starting to look more interesting, he said.
“There are people who dream of living here with us,” Couturier said. “They are tired of raising a family on a condo balcony. They can come here and have the technological means similar to big cities.”
Quebec recognizes the critical need for strong technological infrastructure outside its major urban centres in order to keep young people from leaving.
Late last year, Premier Philippe Couillard announced his government would spend $105 million on 82 projects to bring high-speed internet to roughly 100,000 homes, as part of a program called “Quebec Connected.”
A spokesperson for the Economy Department said the program’s goal is to offer Quebecers in rural areas internet speeds of at least five megabits per second, which is a fraction of what La Malbaie will have. By 2021, the objective is to give these areas internet speeds of 50 megabits per second.
Quebec estimates there are roughly 340,000 homes in the province without internet access or with a mediocre connection.
Couillard said at the time of the announcement, “in every region that I’ve visited over the last few years, people asked me the same question: ‘How to keep young people in the regions and how do we bring back the ones who left?'”
IHR Telecom, a non-profit, is one of the companies helping the government fulfil its promise to bring higher internet speeds to rural areas.
President Patrick Bonvouloir recently signed an agreement with Quebec to bring higher speeds to the administrative region called MRC Brome-Missisquoi, which includes part of the Eastern Townships, south of Montreal.
“Generally, the cities are (well-served) by cable internet,” he said. “The central cores of the towns are served but as soon as you leave the dense urban area you start getting problems.”
Bonvouloir said his company guarantees speeds of between five and 125 megabits per second, depending on customer needs, which is relatively fast but still less than what La Malbaie is getting.
Robert Desmarais, director of MRC Brome-Missisquoi, said about 25 per cent of the buildings in his region — mostly in rural areas — do not have access to proper internet.
“Is it surprising that in 2018 there are areas so close to Montreal that don’t have access to high-speed internet? Yes. Absolutely,” he said.
“The fibre optic cable will serve 100 per cent of our territory, over a distance of 1,400 kilometres, in three years time.”
Back in Charlevoix, Julien Dufour, head of the local chamber of commerce, said it’s difficult to drive around the region and keep a cellphone connection, and he strongly welcomes the towers.
He works in Baie-Saint-Paul, about 50 kilometres south of La Malbaie, and his town is not benefiting from Bell’s high-speed internet cable.
Rather than being jealous, he said the technological node in La Malbaie will create a “snowball effect” that will eventually bring better speeds to his corner of the region.
Giuseppe Valiante, The Canadian Press