School starts with a click of a button. The students may have never met their classmates in person before, but every week they jump into an online chat, faces arranged in a grid on the screen. It’s what school has looked like for many during the past year, but this isn’t just the pandemic. Distance learning has long been something students and teachers in the North have dealt with. Northern Distance Learning (NDL) is an organization that connects elementary and high school students from remote communities to offer certain courses they can’t get at home. When it started in 2010, NDL relied solely on teleconferences to teach. It has only been in the last eight years that they've gone online. There simply wasn’t the capacity to do so before.
To ensure the connection runs smoothly, NDL has a dedicated internet line, called V-connect, that only works between designated buildings. The line is a private service through Northwestel, the biggest telecom in the territories (and a Bell subsidiary), which created a secure network for NDL among several access points where dependable internet service is expensive, if available at all. Of course, it also comes at an additional cost, which is dependent on who and where it connects to. It’s more consistent than what you have at home. But in the North, it would have to be.
It’s no secret that internet services North of 60 are less than ideal. While northern capital cities see a steadier, though far from perfect, connection, the further out you go from the urban centres the more reliable high-speed internet fades.
Like most infrastructure gaps in the North, the problem is geography. The internet seems instantaneous in southern cities but those speeds are deceptive. Data still moves from one computer to another through hundreds of kilometres of cables and wires. Remote communities in the Yukon and NWT are reliant on old copper telephone lines and fibre optic cables that are often subject to accidents or vandalism, wildlife and the harsh landscape itself. Over in Nunavut, residents have to wait for their internet to travel thousands of kilometres up to a satellite in space and be beamed back down with every click.
And when residents can connect, patience often wears thin. Chatting on Zoom or Facetime means navigating lagging and clipped conversations before the screen suddenly announces “the connection has been lost.” It stymies businesses, bottlenecks medical staff, and hampers education.
The problem is as old as the internet itself. The federal government has made commitments to ensure connectivity up here would be on par with the rest of Canada from the time Nunavut became its own territory in 1999. There have been dozens of plans for how to improve our connection, along with hundreds of millions of dollars poured into projects that don’t live up to expectations. What’s it going to take for one of those plans, any of those plans, to finally build a digitally stable North?
There’s a one-word answer to that: Money. Actually, it’s a two-word answer. The first is money, but more importantly it’ll take commitment. For download speeds and internet infrastructure in the North, there are no quick fixes.
It’s three weeks into February and Johnny Kasudluak is about to reach his 50-gigabyte data limit for the month.
“When data is throttled after we reach the usage limit, it takes several minutes just to open a website, and longer to open up pictures,” he says from his home in Inukjuak, Nunavik.
Due to the pandemic, Kasudluak and his wife have been working from home. His position as a project coordinator and his wife’s work within an Indigenous political organization means they regularly reach—and quickly surpass—the limits of their 50-gigabyte internet plan from Xplornet, which costs about $100 a month.
In comparison, some plans down south charge $80 a month for unlimited internet and download speeds of 75 megabits per second (compared to Kasudluak’s 7.8 mbps).
Kasudluak used to pay extra when he went over his data cap, but the telecom is no longer giving him that option. He was told the satellite he’s connected to is going out of service soon and has limited capacity. Customers connected to that satellite were slated to transition to another platform, but that isn’t currently an option. So, internet for many in Inukjuak is currently throttled, with no end date in sight.
However, a solution may be on the horizon—or more accurately, at the bottom of the sea.
CanArctic Inuit Networks is planning to run thousands of hair-thin cables through Arctic waters, stretching from Clarenville, NL up to Iqaluit. Costing $107 million, the fibre optic subsea line is set for completion in October of next year and could potentially cut bandwidth charges by 60 per cent. According to a press release, the “theoretical capacity” of the CanArctic fibre line will be 48 terabits, compared to a satellite spot beam that has about 10 gigabits. However, CanArctic Chief Operating Officer Madeleine Redfern says the timeline depends on funding. CanArctic is currently applying for money through the federal government and private investors, though Redfern adds the project will not need funding from the territorial government. If the money doesn’t get sorted in time, she says the project may be delayed.
Still, the former mayor of Iqaluit says the company is looking toward phase two of the project, which will eventually mean building a fibre-optic line linking the communities in northern Baffin Island. Until then, the project—dubbed SednaLink—will connect those in Iqaluit, opening up more space on the satellites for those in remote communities looking to log on. It would be like the government opening a new transport highway to Nunavut’s capital. Suddenly, there would be a lot more room on the cargo planes and sealifts.
While Redfern mentions CanArctic had originally proposed the SednaLink to the Government of Nunavut, the GN instead went ahead with a plan of its own to build a 2,000-kilometre-long fibre-optic line. The territorial government originally announced the $209.5 million project in August 2019, aiming to run the cable from Nuuk, Greenland to Iqaluit. That has since changed, and it will instead start off in Iqaluit, turn toward Hudson Bay and then connect with another cable in northern Quebec installed by the Kativik Regional Government (KRG) before heading to Montreal. But those plans are still in the early stages. It could be several more years before any construction begins.
While each line could be complementary to the other, between the two proposed projects, Jim Hayes, astronomer and president of California-based Fibre Optic Association, says the SednaLink is the more practical route. “Clarenville to Iqaluit is a straight shot for an undersea cable,” he says. “Going from an inland location like Montreal would certainly cost twice as much and be insanely difficult to build compared to the undersea route.”
Currently, all of Nunavut’s communities use satellite internet. Customers in Iqaluit and businesses in Cambridge Bay, Arviat and Rankin Inlet can access five mbps download speeds from Northwestel. Everyone else has three mbps speeds offered through SSI Canada’s Qiniq. Internet packages range from $40 to $399 a month and can cost anywhere from $4 to $15 extra for each gigabyte over your limit.
Things are a little better in the Yukon and NWT, both of which already have fibre optic lines. But getting those cables installed was a process—and a shaky one at that. Starting in 2015, a crew began laying the Mackenzie Valley Fibre Line (MVFL) from just south of Fort Simpson to Inuvik. It launched in 2017 and has helped bring high-speed internet to Inuvik and, more recently, brought unlimited data plans. But during construction, the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board published reports noting areas with exposed cables and pooling water at connection boxes, causing some of them to float. Drilling in certain areas was not completed, leaving parts of the fibre line exposed above ground.
The MVFL has seen several breaks since its completion. They include being struck by lightning, run over by a contractor, and being chewed on by wildlife—causing outages to Yellowknife and the communities. Two cuts to the line in the summer of 2019 were estimated to have cost $10 million in lost revenue. And while the bigger issue may lie in the initial construction, it also points to the need for back-up lines, known as redundancies.
In that aspect, the North isn’t lacking in suggested fixes. Providing it can secure funding, Yellowknife-based KatloTech Communications (KTC) is proposing to run lines through the Mackenzie Valley as well as one from High Level, Alberta to South Slave’s Kátl’odeeche First Nation. Northwestel has plans to build a new fibre line under Great Slave Lake that would connect to a line running from Fort Resolution to Fort Smith, Hay River and Fort Providence, and loop back to Yellowknife.
Meanwhile, the Yukon’s Dempster Fibre Project has been in the works since 2015—or at least on paper it has. Connecting Dawson City to Inuvik, this $85 million project could potentially act as a loop with the MVFL. Since the original completion date of 2017, the Dempster Fibre Project has been extended to 2021 and then pushed back again to 2025. The delay is partially due to a change in territorial government. It was first announced by the Yukon Party, before the Liberals took over the following year.
“If money is being allocated by a political entity, there have been so many instances of networks that started off with great ideas and then died in the next administration,” says Hayes.
Redfern, who has been working toward improving internet capacity in Nunavut for a decade now, knows there are many roadblocks. But a lack of funding has always been the major issue. With a better understanding of the North by southern political powers, she says that is beginning to change.
“I know that we definitely benefitted from having a lot of federal ministers visit Canada’s North and Nunavut in the last five years,” she says. “I remember when there was a federal-territorial-provincial meeting here at the Frobisher Inn in Iqaluit, the federal minister’s assistant was in panic mode as she realized she was unable to access the minister’s presentation because it was on the cloud. She hadn’t thought about a work-around. She hadn’t realized that she needed to actually save the minister’s presentation on a thumb drive or, you know, have it on her computer.”
It wasn’t until late 2015 that the CRTC announced a consultation to determine whether broadband internet should be classified as an essential service. Since then, the federal government has allotted more funds toward bettering services, with the amount increasing each time. Last year, the CRTC offered a $750 million broadband fund, to be distributed over the next five years, with $72 million dedicated to northern communities. As great as that is, it’s still not enough. A federal study in 2014 estimated it would take $622 million to build northern internet capacity up to nine mbps (and $2 billion for a system with full redundancy).
Still, there are other problems facing a connected North, such as the weather.
“To have internet that’s subject to fog, snow and wind is bizarre and definitely a little absurd,” says Redfern. “And so those stories get national attention at times and people find that really hard to relate to, but that is our reality.”
The weather, and the landscape itself, certainly pose a problem to providing decent internet. Some places have no road access, making it difficult to set down fibre lines. Contractors have to be aware of traditional hunting routes and traplines, and then, of course, they need to know how to work around permafrost. The building season is short, as it gets too cold and difficult to set down lines for much of the year.
“I can’t stress enough how we need to have professionals with that level of expertise to design the project properly when it comes to routing, addressing the technical issues, and ensuring… you have a really solid plan,” says Redfern.
Perhaps the answer isn’t underground, though, or under the sea. Maybe it’s in the stars. Both Elon Musk of SpaceX and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos are launching fleets of low-orbit satellites, which float 550 kilometres above the Earth, to create a global blanket of deliriously fast, easily accessible internet. Kasudluak is one Northerner who intends to link up to those satellites once Musk’s Starlink service is available.
“I’m excited,” Kasudluak says. “I’m on the waitlist, but I haven’t received any further information other than that. [Hopefully I’ll] get it within the year.”
Connecting to Starlink satellites means Kasudluak’s download speeds will jump to 25 megabits per second, with unlimited internet. He’ll have to pay a one-time fee of $649, but his monthly bill will cost just $30 more than what he’s paying now.
But even with thousands of low-orbit satellites, US-based investment company Cowen & Co. says it’s unrealistic for SpaceX to service all its subscribers at full capacity. That means the company may have to eventually offer lower speeds to cover everyone who is signed up. When asked about eventual data caps through a Reddit thread last November, the SpaceX team responded: “We really don’t want to implement restrictive data caps like people have encountered with satellite Internet in the past. Right now we’re still trying to figure a lot of stuff out—we might have to do something in the future to prevent abuse and just ensure that everyone else gets quality service.”
So, it seems it’s still up in the air (pun intended). Meanwhile, some astronomers have raised worries about the effects low-orbit satellites will have on the sky. With 42,000 potential SpaceX satellites launching in the next decade, the night sky could quickly become a clatter of metal disks that are so bright it blocks out the stars. There is also the increased and very real risk of objects crashing into each other, causing thousands of pieces of debris to float overhead—making it difficult to track what’s already in orbit. And they may not be able to detect objects, such as asteroids, in space until it’s too late to react.
For Kasudluak and Redfern, having adequate internet services means being able to do their jobs. It means more productivity, less financial stress and better connection to those outside of their communities—be it coworkers or friends and family.
Bringing our internet up to speed isn’t a quick fix. Like any big project, it takes time, money and commitment. It also means getting help from those who do have the money and power to put plans in action. It means understanding the issues that come with being so far up and taking the time to come up with real solutions—and sticking to them. Redfern believes the south is on the cusp of understanding.
“I think we’ll see the recognition that more money is going to be required, even beyond the $750 million [broadband fund] to close the gap,” she says.
Those with the power and money to make these projects happen are becoming more engaged with the Arctic and are willing to lend a hand to Northerners to put those projects in motion.
Back in March, residents of Ulukhaktok, NWT anxiously waited for their internet to reconnect, after eight days of blank screens and—worse yet—disconnected debit machines and ATMs. Residents fretted the little cash they had on hand wouldn’t last, while food banks and even the mayor offered up what they had to help others. It isn’t the first time the hamlet had seen long-lasting internet outages, but it may have been the worst.
“We need help. We need somebody to come here and fix this situation because people are struggling to get groceries,” Mayor Joshua Oliktoak told CBC. “People are struggling to get heating fuel, to get gas for their snowmobiles.”
While a blizzard was on its way, Northwestel employees assessed the problem, later explaining it was a technical issue that had caused the crash. There’s no promise it won’t happen again in the future.
So while engineers lay out business plans to build the next fibre optic line or launch the next satellite, Northerners are biding their time.
But the truth of the matter is that poor internet is about more than blank screens and lagging conversations. It’s a barrier to bettering the economy, education and can even stand in the way of heating your home or getting your groceries.
It isn’t something to be slowly worked on bit by bit. It’s a human right and it needs our attention—now.
“The reality is that we need to keep reinvesting in internet to keep up,” says Redfern, “not only with urban centres in Canada, but also to keep up with the world.”