Northern Connectivity


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No Little Plans

Society & Culture

We do everything online—shopping, school, health care. So what happens when our communities don’t have reliable internet? In Episode 13 of No Little Plans, we look at the rapidly evolving digital divide in Canada’s north.The pandemic has made it clear that access to a reliable internet connection is necessary to live, work and engage meaningfully in civic life. But for many remote communities, internet isn’t a reliable resource. Canada has pledged to provide high-speed internet access to its hardest-to-reach areas by 2030. But the way we engage online is quickly evolving, along with our networks—and the chasm between the digital haves and have-nots is only growing wider. According to the Canadian Radio-Television & Communications Commission, less than half of rural households have the internet speed required for online learning tools. Meanwhile, the majority of Canada’s north depends on satellite internet, which can be unreliable (the service is slow and spotty) and expensive (monthly bills can soar up to $1,200). Bad weather can put a community out of service completely. This presents a huge challenge for northern communities who need to access education, conduct business and stay connected to friends and family.“It's the total loss of connection, which can last several hours or, or even several days. And you never really know when this is going to happen” —Mark BrazeauIn this episode, host Tokunbo Adegbuyi interviews Andrea Brazeau, a fourth-year student at McGill University’s Faculty of Education. Andrea is originally from Kangiqsualujjuaq, in Nunavik, Quebec, and last fall she wrote an open letter to the premier of Quebec to draw attention to the internet gaps her northern community faces. Unlike some of her classmates, Andrea stayed in Montreal for the fall semester because she knew she wouldn’t be able to access online learning from her home in northern Quebec. “It was difficult because Montreal is the coronavirus hotspot. The one thing I thought about was my mental health—being alone,” she says. “My family is up north and I thought, how am I going to do this? How am I going to make it through the semester? In Kangiqsualujjuaq, connectivity is so unreliable that sometimes Andrea’s family loses internet for days at a time. While making the episode, Andrea asks her dad, Mark, to send a voice memo to the podcast team, and they discover that he’s working with a download speed of 91 kilobytes per second. For context: the government considers 1 megabit per second insufficient for meaningful online engagement; Mark Brazeau—who works as a school principal—is dealing with less than one hundredth that speed. And, looking beyond the bare minimum of being able to work and learn online, Andrea wonders what else might be possible with better connectivity: “There's this big Indigenous community online,” she says. “Imagine how much more connected we could be as Indigenous peoples across Canada if we had a high functioning internet in the north?“It opens up a world of opportunity for youth in the north to be able to access the same services that we all take for granted in the south” —Mark BuellLater in the episode, we hear from Mark Buell, the regional vice-president for North America at the Internet Society, a non-profit with the goal of securing access to safe and secure internet for everyone in the world. There’s a lot of discussion around how to improve telecommunications in the north. Low-earth-orbit satellites, or LEOS, are one option that shows promise, delivering up to 50 megabits per second. But, according to Buell, the gold standard of connectivity is fibre-optic internet, which delivers 20 times that speed. The problem? Fibre needs infrastructure to operate, and if the infrastructure doesn’t exist, it can cost millions of dollars to build from scratch. “We tended to rely on the private sector to deploy internet access for the first 20 years of the internet. We did a really good job connecting a lot of people to the internet, but it was based on market forces,” he explains. “Canada has some of the highest internet penetration rates in the world. But that's simply because of our geography. The vast majority of Canadians live within 100 kilometres of the U.S. border. Where the market-based approach fails is in those communities where there may not be a return on investment for the private sector to deploy access.”Buell speaks about community-led solutions that could help bridge the gap for northern Indigenous populations. He organizes the Indigenous Connectivity Summit, which works to empower Indigenous networkers. After the annual summit, they publish a set of key policy recommendations on how to undertake connectivity projects with Indigenous communities. They argue, "Indigenous voices are critical to conversations about connectivity, especially when the policy outcomes of those conversations will affect Indigenous communities.”In our interview, Buell describes how Ulukhaktok, a small community in the Northwest Territories, is on their way to building their own internet network. Residents completed the Internet Society’s training program and plan to launch their internet service provider as a non-profit. “Indigenous people around the globe have all suffered from the effects of colonialism,” he says. “By connecting to each other via the internet, you create this global community of support to share knowledge and stories.”