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On September 14, 2017, Innovation, Science and Economic Development minister Navdeep Bains announced $50 million in funding for Northwestel to improve internet capacity across Nunavut. This money, along with $73 million from Northwestel, will create an open-access backbone in each community. Essentially, Northwestel will build new ground-stations and install satellites in all 25 Nunavut communities to connect to a high-throughput Ka-band satellite being launched by Telesat in 2018.
Up Here spoke with Curtis Shaw, Northwestel’s chief operating officer, on September 15, to learn more about the backbone project and how it will benefit Nunavummiut.

The $50 million announced yesterday will, combined with $73 million from Northwestel, upgrade ground facilities in each Nunavut community?
Curtis Shaw: Yeah, it’s going to be used to construct and operate 25 new earth stations. So every Nunavut community is going to get a new earth station, a satellite dish pointed at the new [Ka-band] satellite and that’s what the capital investment entails between the two groups.

So all those satellite dishes being installed will connect to the new satellite that’s going up next year?
They’re all brand new builds, so every community has to be shipped a dish. The new satellite is going to be launching in the middle of next year and we’re looking to see commercial service available towards the latter half of 2018.

Capacity on the new satellite is going to be approximately 20 times what we currently have today. We’re putting a lot of bandwidth up over Nunavut for use for residential, small business and obviously schools and health centres.

Will you continue to have dishes pointed at the current C-band satellite for redundancy? Or will everything move over to this new satellite?
We’re going to keep our current satellite network in place, so there will be partial redundancy. The current system won’t have the same bandwidth capabilities that the new system will have. But we will still run long-distance services over the existing C-band network that Northwestel has. In all these locations, we’ll have two dishes pointed at two different satellites, so it does provide partial redundancy for Nunavut.

Northwestel provides long-distance phone in each Nunavut community. Are you currently providing internet service in each Nunavut community or just a handful of them?
In all 25 communities, we provide local access—so basic telephone service to residential and business customers, long-distance service and then some data services to business. But in terms of internet, we only provide internet in four communities today—Iqaluit, Rankin Inlet, Cambridge Bay and Arviat.

This is really about beefing the backbone up in all 25 communities and providing a backbone service that can be used for schools and health centres and other applications.

In the 21 communities you’re not providing internet service in, are these going to be completely new stations and infrastructure? Or is this something that can be added on to the long-distance infrastructure you have in place in each community?
It’s a mix. In a number of communities, we have to put in a brand new building because we just don’t have enough room in the existing building for power and power-generation—things of that nature. In other locations where we have a bigger building, we’re putting a new satellite dish and foundations on that site.

In all 25 communities, we have a presence. We have a building, we have a tower—things of that nature. What we’re doing is putting a brand new satellite dish on the property. In some cases, you’re actually seeing new building construction to support the network in some of our locations. It varies community to community across the territory.

So in the four communities that you provide interest service to already, you’ll keep those satellites focused on that C-band satellite and you’ll introduce a new satellite there for Ka-band.
If you go through all 25 communities, we’ll have two satellite dishes. There will be one pointed at the C-band, which is the existing network that carries data traffic, long-distance, a lot of the services that we carry as an organization. And then all 25 communities are going to get a brand new Ka-band dish as well.

Even in a location like Resolute, they will have a dish pointed at C-band that some customers will be on and then there will be a dish pointed at Ka-band, which is the high-throughput satellite that Telesat is launching.

Qiniq—an SSi Micro subsidiary—provides internet in every Nunavut community right now. Are you going to partner with them—either through a lease or purchase of infrastructure? Is there going to be some cooperation there if they’ve already got infrastructure in place in every community?
I can’t really speak on behalf of SSi Micro. The focus right now is really getting this infrastructure up and running. It is an open-access infrastructure, so government can use it, other providers can use it. Obviously, Northwestel will use it for our retail services, but you’d have to talk to SSi Micro about their plans.

This is an open-access backbone system. Who will determine the rates to use it? Will it be Northwestel? Will it be government? Will there be a meeting of potential retail service providers and everyone will sit down to discuss fair rates? Is the rate something that has already been determined or will it be determined after everything’s built?
It will be determined. We had a very detailed proposal that went into the federal government that included service descriptions and proposed rates and things of that nature. That process will happen over the next 12 months or 24 months. The focus right now is really on the construction, the commissioning, getting this network up and running. All of that will happen concurrently with the network build over the next couple of years.

Northwestel and the government will figure out what a fair rate is then?
That’s to be worked out in the process that we’re going to be going through with Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada.

So everyone who would want to provide retail internet service would pay the same rate? Northwestel would pay the same rate as any other competitor?
It’s all to be worked out. I can’t give the specifics on what the rate is Community X versus Community Y and how the service will be structured. It is open-access—that was a fundamental component of our proposal that we put forward to the Connect to Innovate program. I don’t have all the ins and outs about how that would work.

But the idea behind the open-access backbone would be that retail competition would possibly bring rates down for the internet user in Nunavut?
In terms of the backbone, if you come up with a rate and what it means for the end-consumer—the price per megabit that we’re going to be paying on the satellite is much lower. There’s much more capacity in the sky for a similar price. So just by default, the amount of bits moving through the satellite is going to be at a lower price.

The fundamental tenet of this whole proposal is having one backbone that is going to be shared for healthcare, government services, education during the day. A real great example is kids during the day are going to be able to video conference, they’re going to be able to do distance education, they’re going to be on Youtube, they’re going to be doing their research reports when they’re at school. That bandwidth, at six or seven or eight o’clock at night, will be repurposed to the residential market. So it’s really based on trying to leverage the same backbone for daytime services, business services, government services that generally peak during the daytime, like schools, and then repurposing that bandwidth at night for the residential consumer. You’re not seeing that throughout our networks today and this is one of the big advantages of how we’ve designed this proposal.

There will be more to come, in terms of future services and how this rolls out to the residential market. I expect the bit cap to go up, I expect the price to go down and customers seeing more usage on a monthly basis than they see today, once the network is fully implemented.

That will be 2019?
2019 for the entire build to be complete. We’ll have a number of communities online towards the end of 2018, following the successful launch of the satellite.

In the announcement, I heard that speeds will be three to five times faster. Is that based on the reality of every-day speeds or will it be three to five times the advertised speeds?
So in Iqaluit, our fastest speed today is 5 megabits-per-second. So three times faster brings services up to 15 mbps. That’s kind of the range of what we’re looking for right now. We’re looking to deliver 15 mbps to the home across this network to the end-consumers.

This whole subsidy and program was based on a submission that you made to the Connect to Innovate fund? It wasn’t an RFP that went out to various companies?
The Connect to Innovate fund was a $500-million fund set up by the federal government. We provided a submission. There were rules around the submission and we were the ones selected coming out of that process. Submissions were due back in April, so the summer’s been kind of the time to adjudicate the proposals and we just heard about the award here. It was announced yesterday.

I was following the CRTC hearings on Northern internet. The backbone idea was something that had been proposed by Jeff Philipp and SSi Micro. Had you talked to them about that idea? Were you on board with that? Did you think it was a good idea? Was this something you’d been thinking about previously?
We put together our own vision, our own proposal to the federal government about backbone and what a powerful backbone could mean for the territory. I can’t speak to all the ins and outs of other proposals that may have gone in under this program.

It’s an exciting project. It’s an exciting announcement. Northwestel is really honoured to be selected as a trusted provider here with the federal government. We’re looking at bringing up to 5000 megabits per second to schools and health centres, so when you start thinking about 5000 megabits per second compared to schools in rural parts of the country, we hopefully will have a network here that has the potential to change how schools deliver curricula, how healthcare providers deal with remote diagnostics. It has the potential to reshape a lot of government services and how they’re delivered in the territory. We’re pretty excited about that.

Just the logistics of getting it built over the next two years are pretty phenomenal when we’re talking about barges and planes and all of the background to make this work. It’s going to be a big undertaking for us.

A lot of airmiles?
For sure. Seamiles.

Some people are really calling for fibre in Nunavut. I realize the capital costs can be prohibitive, especially considering the large area with relatively small population centres and usage. But is there anything in Northwestel’s long-term or even medium-term vision involving the connection of even Iqaluit or Cambridge Bay to fibre?
There are lots of discussion ongoing about the need for fibre that obviously we’re contributing to. The nice thing about this project is it hits every community and it brings them all up to speed very quickly, whereas some of the fibre proposals that we’ve talked about will target a number of the larger communities. I think this is a great interim step to getting to that vision of connecting all of Nunavut together with high-performance fibre. The nice thing about it—all 25 communities move up to something 20 times faster than today. Residential customers benefit, schools benefit. And it can be done quickly, whereas fibre networks may take years to fully develop and be implemented for the territory.

Are there specific communities in particular that will really see a noticeable difference in 2019?
I think it’s right across the board. All communities are going to see a huge improvement. Just using internet access over the last few days here in Iqaluit, you’re going to see a dramatic improvement in speeds to the home when this is done. I think people in Iqaluit are going to be excited about it. You go into Grise Fiord today and you’re starting to see speeds maybe 100 megabits per second to the school. That’s pretty phenomenal when you think about what this technology can do for the smallest communities.

And like you said earlier, the details of the open-access backbone rates will be rolled out? In 12 months, we’ll have an idea of how that’s going to work?
I think that’s fair. It’s all been submitted as part of our proposal. There’s going to be more to come of that in the next year.