Canada’s Northern Broadband Problem

My usual writing purview for ChannelE2E is Mexico and Mexico-related things, but given that July 1st was Canada Day, I’d like to turn my attention to my home and native land today.

Canada has a long history of technological innovation. We brought the world the telephone, the lightbulb, the Canadarm, BlackBerry, and five-pin bowling, to name a few. So despite the frigid temperatures and over reliance on poutine, Canadians are often early adopters of technology. The Internet is one technology that we’ve picked up with gusto, with the Canadian Internet Registration Authority declaring that 8 in 10 Canadians use the Internet – nearly 27.5 million people – and that the average Canuck spends 45 hours a month online trying to buy things on Amazon.

According to the CBC, the Internet first made its way across the border in 1985 when Canadian universities were given access to a shared network called NetWorth, but it didn’t take off (eh!) until the 90’s. I come from a small town called Omemee, about two hours Northeast of Toronto. We got access to dial up in 1993. It was a novelty then and at the time didn’t seem to have many practical implications beyond connecting folks. Obviously, since then it’s become a cornerstone of civilization, with many calling access a basic human right.

Who’s Got The WiFi?

But there is one area of the country where access to the web is severely limited. When the rest of the world has become so reliant on the Internet for basic communications, for isolated communities racked with addiction problems, high unemployment, and a suicide epidemic, it’s even more important. But a lack of stable infrastructure has made access unreliable.

Take the 2011 incident where, as the CBC reported, Telesat Canada’s Anik F2 satellite had a “technical anomaly,” causing its signal to point toward the sun instead of the Earth. It resulted in a communications shutdown in Canada’s territories including Nunavut, parts of Yukon and Northwest Territories. In Nunavut’s capital, Iqaluit, business was shut down for 16 hours with Internet, cellular and long-distance phone connections all lost.

And it seems companies and governments are slow to learn from their mistakes. A similar incident occurred just last year, causing outages across the territories and the northern parts of Ontario and Quebec.

Add to that the prohibitive cost of internet packages, it can seem like these communities are being largely forgotten. For example, the cheapest plan is $59.95/month for 512 Kbps with a 2 gig data cap and an overage charge of $35/gigabyte. That’s expensive by any standard.

Dealing With The Problem

There have been some moves by the government over the last year to ease the situation. Or at least to understand it. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) held hearings last year, where it heard from representatives of the North that communities suffered from high costs for low services. Providers, meanwhile, say they suffer from unpredictable government funding and challenges securing reliable transportation services.

Following the hearings, the CRTC implemented new mandatory minimum speeds for the region. Where previously in Nunavut, speeds realistically maxed out at 5 megabits per second (Mbps), the amount is now mandated at 10 times that, with a $750 million fund established to help fund infrastructure improvements. That followed a major federal funding announcement to increase rural and Northern connectivity around the country.

Implementing the changes will take time (as much as 15 years), and the ruling didn’t set maximum prices that companies can charge, which likely means there won’t be much change for large segments of the society any time soon.

In the meantime, some citizens are taking matters into their own hands. Take this report from Al Jazeera, which shows a man named Bruce Buffalo who, believing connectivity will bring opportunities, has taken it upon himself to give his community a high-speed Internet connection.

At this point, it could take another generation before the region starts seeing the benefits of these changes. Hopefully that’s not too late for this beautiful, unique, and culturally rich part of the world.

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