Nunatsiaq News
EDITORIAL: Around the Arctic October 25, 2012 - 9:30 am

It’s time for movement on Arctic telecoms


You know how bad it can get.

It’s the government employer who blocks websites to save bandwidth. It’s the internet link that dies in the middle of an email download. Or maybe it’s the cell phone — if you’re lucky enough to even get cell service — that never works when you need it the most.

No regular person who reads this — especially any Arctic resident reading this on the internet — can deny that a top-to-bottom overhaul of northern Canada’s rickety telecommunications system is long overdue.

The companies who sell these services, and now, even governments, know what you know about how bad it can get.

For some, the Oct. 6, 2011 software glitch that threw the Anik F2 satellite out of whack for most the day was a big wake-up call.

Within a week, Government of Nunavut officials met to figure out how to better cope with such a screw-up in the future.

But even before that, at the behest of Joint Task Force North, Public Safety Canada and other government agencies, a bureaucratic group called the Northern Communications and Information Systems Working group had already delved into the issue.

The title of their August 2011 report says it all: “A Matter of Survival.” They began work on it after a less well publicized communications meltdown that occurred in August 2009. This was during the Operation Nanook exercise near Iqaluit, when emergency responders discovered their cell phone and internet connections repeatedly failed.

At the same time, a complex menu of federal government broadband subsidies for rural and remote regions, delivered through Industry Canada, is due to expire by 2016.

So what should government do?

First, territorial, provincial and federal governments should take a good look at what, in the Arctic, amounts to a new technology: undersea fibre-optic cable.

The leading proponent of this technology, a firm called Arctic Fibre Inc., plans to invest some $600 million of private money in an undersea cable between Europe and Asia. This cable would pass through waters off Nunavut, Labrador, Nunavik, the Northwest Territories and Alaska.

Arctic Fibre has just applied for the the necessary licences. They’re lining up customers.  If they get the required number of telecom firms to sign on, especially in Asia, they will build this line. When that happens, 52 per cent of Nunavut’s population will get high-speed telecommunications at a dramatically lower cost.

No government with jurisdiction over any section of Canada’s eastern Arctic can afford to ignore this opportunity. Should the Government of Nunavut, for example, ignore this development, they would likely endure a major political embarrassment.

Some players have given the fibre-optic proposal a frosty reception. The Nunavut Broadband Development Corp., for example, argues against it on the basis of parity: it can’t deliver equal levels of access to every Nunavut community.

Of all the possible objections to fibre optic, this is the weakest. If governments were to apply the parity principle to other forms of vital infrastructure, nothing in Nunavut would ever get built. Pangnirtung would not receive a new dock until all other communities also received a new dock. Iqaluit would not receive a hydroelectric dam until all other communities also received a hydroelectric dam. And so on.

Here’s a more realistic approach: ask the CRTC to define a new minimum acceptable standard of service for those communities, such as Grise Fiord, that will not enjoy a connection to a fibre optic cable. Then lobby governments to ensure it’s carried out.

Another objection to undersea fibre-optic is more substantial. Would such a cable be vulnerable to damage caused by shore-fast ice movement? Is there a risk of catastrophic cable cuts that cannot be repaired during the Arctic’s long, dark winters?

Telesat, whose dominant position in Canadian Arctic telecommunications is obviously threatened by Arctic Fibre’s proposal, is fond of raising such objections.

But Greenland, an Arctic country where ice, glaciers and a long dark winter are a normal part of life, now uses a fibre optic cable that was finished in 2009, connecting Nuuk and Qaqortoq to landing points in Iceland and Newfoundland.

And a 1,400-kilometre fibre-optic cable connects Norway to the town of Longyearbyen, located on Svalbard, a remote collection of Arctic islands that are ice-bound for much of the year.

As for Telesat, they’re proposing a 10-year plan of their own. Under it, they’re inviting governments to spend $120 million over the next 10 years to buy currently unused space on three of the firm’s satellites. Telesat would spend $40 million of its own money. The result? All of Nunavut would enjoy what Telesat calls “true broadband internet.”

This leads to the second measure that governments should insist on — a value-for-money audit of the current broadband subsidy system, which has existed since about 2004.

Telesat and other players, such as the NDBC and the SSI Group, which operates the Qiniq brand in Nunavut, have made use of Industry Canada grants and subsidies for years. A value-for-money audit would reveal whether these funds have been used efficiently.

Given that Telesat urges more government spending in the future, it’s essential that Industry Canada, before making any decision on Telesat’s proposal, do a thorough audit to review the use of what has already been spent. 

Third, governments, along with the CRTC, need to develop a comprehensive long-term plan for upgrading northern Canada’s telecom system. The CRTC’s recent rejection of Northwestel’s proposed use of Astral benefits money makes the development of such a plan even more urgent than before. JB

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