02/20/2014 12:58 EST | Updated 04/22/2014 05:59 EDT

Eastlink has until end of the year to complete rural broadband project: minister

HALIFAX - Internet provider Eastlink has until the end of the year to offer rural broadband service to isolated pockets of Nova Scotia that don't already have high-speed service, the provincial government said Thursday.

Rural Development Minister Michel Samson said Eastlink's contract to get the work done expires in December.

"We've been having discussions with Eastlink, encouraging them to have all households connected," Samson said after a cabinet meeting.

"We want as close to 100 per cent as possible. ... We think there are still too many Nova Scotians out there asking for high-speed service who do not have it."

The provincial government promised in 2006 to provide all Nova Scotians with access to high-speed services, saying the goal was to make Nova Scotia one of North America's most connected jurisdictions.

Samson said 99 per cent of the province now has access to high-speed service. A spokeswoman in his office says 1,034 homes and businesses — most in southwestern Nova Scotia and the Annapolis Valley — have approached Eastlink to get high-speed service.

"Our concern is that the number is slightly higher than what we are being told," Samson said, suggesting that some people in areas where there is no high-speed service have not spoken up about their desire to be hooked up.

The problem is that these areas face particular challenges when it comes to their geography, he said.

"The goal was 100 per cent," the minister said. "At this point, we have to be realistic in asking ourselves whether 100 per cent (is possible) with current technology and some of the geographic challenges."

Eastlink's website says the company is completing installations on a regular basis and only the most difficult installs remain.

The company, contracted to supply service to eight counties in the western half of the province, says the top challenges include supplying signals over long distances and avoiding blockages caused by big hills and valleys.

"Eastlink continues to work co-operatively with government investigating a variety of alternate solutions for potential customers who live in the hard-to-serve pockets," the website says.

The company couldn't be reached for comment Thursday.

In eastern Nova Scotia, including Cape Breton, Seaside Communications has managed to provide service to all but 10 households, Samson said.

The budget for the government's rural broadband initiative was $75 million, with $41 million coming from the service providers, $20 million from the province and $14 million from Ottawa.

Follow @NovaMac on Twitter