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Canada's Northern Territories Struggle With Slow, Expensive Internet

ICE Graveyard 23/04/2016 Alexandra Ma

In Canada’s north, internet is slower and more expensive than anywhere else in the country. Despite recent improvements, northern users say more action is needed before the system grinds to a halt.

Consider the chaos that would erupt if London or Tokyo lost all of its telecommunications connectivity for a day or two.

In northern Canada a miniature version of that nightmare scenario is a distressingly common experience, especially in Nunavut, which is completely reliant on satellite bandwidth for its telecommunications services. In 2011, Telesat Canada’s Anik F2 satellite suffered a “technical anomaly” that caused its signal to point away from Earth and toward the sun.

The result was a full-blown communications meltdown in Nunavut and parts of Yukon and the Northwest Territories (NWT). In Iqaluit, business came to a virtual standstill for 16 hours as internet, cellular and long-distance phone connections were all lost. Airlines were forced to cancel flights and Nunavut’s premier took to the local CBC station to communicate with local officials in the territory’s far-flung hamlets. 

Beyond the nightmare scenario is the monthly grind of expensive bills, usage caps and limited download speeds. Those speeds vary widely, from under 5 megabits per second (mbps) in Iqaluit to an advertised 125 mbps in Whitehorse, a package that costs C$190 ($150) per month. The cost of internet punishes everyone from casual individual users to business owners to large institutions, said David Wasylciw, director of the Smart Communities Society in Yellowknife, NWT, which advocates for internet access for northern nonprofits.

“There’s a lot of mid-sized businesses here that, their power bills are pretty high, but their internet bills are just as bad or worse,” he said. “It increases the cost of living up here.”

This month, the CRTC, Canada’s national telecommunications regulator, is holding hearings on the state of the country’s broadband internet, with a focus on service for rural and remote communities. The commission is weighing whether telecom providers should be obligated to provide broadband. Northern internet users have a great deal at stake on the answer.

Outside of Whitehorse and Yellowknife, many communities rely on a patchwork system of microwave repeater stations or satellite links that, by their very nature, choke off speeds and drive up costs. In places like Dawson City, which gets a microwave signal that’s connected to the fiber-optic line further south, a DSL package offers reasonable speeds, albeit at an advertised price of $84 per month for 200 monthly gigabytes. But that doesn’t include the cost of a mandatory telephone line or a $20-per-month fee if you choose to opt out of the phone line.

But the situation is most dire in Nunavut. The territory’s satellite system is groaning under the weight of more and more users going online as the territory’s young population mushrooms and data needs expand.

The growing move to streaming software means Nunavut users are often out of luck when it comes to buying, say, design software or updating operating systems, files that can sometimes be several gigabytes in size.

That’s enough to shred even the largest internet plans. Northwestel’s best package in Iqaluit offers 5 mbps and a 50 gigabytes (GB) usage cap, all for a cool C$190 ($150) per month. Every gig over the cap is an extra C$10. Outside of the capital, a similar package, provided by the heavily subsidized Qiniq service can reach C$400 (around $300) per month. Meanwhile, the network is so congested, government workers routinely resort to sending files by mail or thumb drive, and to scheduling large downloads for the middle of the night.

Even an autoplay advertisement on a news site has implications for the pocketbook, said Iqaluit mayor Madeleine Redfern. “I just cringe and think ‘Oh yeah, how much is that going to cost me?’ I don’t even want to watch it.” Redfern spoke to me from Victoria, where she was using some of her vacation time to download an update for Microsoft Word. This kind of thing is commonplace for Nunavummiut travelling in the south.

“We’re getting a fraction of the service [available in southern Canada] at twice the cost,” said Oana Spinu, executive director of the Nunavut Broadband Development Corporation. “The consequences are that people are self-censoring” their use of the internet, effectively asking “Is it worth it?” before downloading, she said.

If the situation affected only online multiplayer video games, it might not matter so much. But Spinu said Nunavut’s anemic broadband connection has an impact that resonates through nearly every facet of daily life. It constrains the healthcare and legal systems that rely on teleconferencing and routine transfers of large files. And it impacts the education system: all of Nunavut’s schools must share between them 50 mbps worth of bandwidth.

In her testimony to the CRTC, Spinu characterized the territory’s situation as a “market failure.” “It’s not possible for market forces alone to meet the territory’s telecommunications needs,” she told me. Nor, she added, do the federal subsidy programs that typically last three or four years at a time. “You wait and cross your fingers that in another three or four years another program will come out. What we see is that Nunavut’s falling farther and farther behind the rest of Canada.”

Ultimately, what the territory needs, Spinu says, is a fiber-optic link, which will mean high upfront capital costs, but lower maintenance costs in the long term. She’d like to see a link to the existing Greenland Connect cable that runs from Newfoundland to Nuuk, Greenland. Spinu says there have been preliminary discussions between Nunavut and the Inuit regions of Nunavik in northern Quebec and Nunatsiavut in Labrador about a possible fiber link, but so far there’s been no political commitment for such a project.

Arctic Fibre, a London-to-Tokyo fiber optic line that was supposed to offer fiber service to seven Nunavut communities, has been fraught with delays and is now concentrating on connecting with communities on Alaska’s North Slope. (Redfern is a former advisor to Arctic Fibre but no longer speaks on their behalf.)

Problems also remain in Yukon and the NWT. Northwestel’s ownership of the existing fiber lines, and the wholesale prices the CRTC has allowed them to charge would-be competitors has effectively headed off new market entrants. The north’s small, sparsely populated market means full-blown competition will likely remain a pipe dream. “The north probably can’t sustain Rogers, Shaw and Bell all fighting,” said Wasylciw.

Still, Spinu, Redfern and Wasylciw are all guardedly optimistic about the north’s telecommunications future. The new Liberal government’s recent budget contained $500 million over five years for rural broadband. Qiniq is proposing a new “open gateway” satellite service for Nunavut. And the Yukon and NWT governments are funding new fiber-optic linesthat will eventually meet near Inuvik, NWT, and provide a loop to create redundancy that protects against outages – for both territories.

Somehow, some way, governments are going to have to find the money to further improve the north’s telecommunications system, said Redfern.

“With every year that nothing happens we are falling further and further behind.”

This article originally appeared on Arctic Deeply. For weekly updates about Arctic geopolitics, economy, and ecology, you can sign up to the Arctic Deeply email list.

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