A failure to communicate


When Prime Minister Stephen Harper posed in the middle of Frobisher Bay for the world’s most expensive photo-op during the August 2009 version of Operation Nanook, no one at the time had much to say about the potentially dangerous communications meltdown that was about to strike Iqaluit.

“The influx of out-of-territory personnel arriving in one community overloaded the local cell phone and Internet network, and severely hampered the communication capabilities of the emergency responders conducting the operation.”

So says an an excellent report, commissioned soon after the Iqaluit emergency exercise, that takes a critical look at the Canadian Arctic’s rickety telecommunications infrastructure.

This “profound communication failure” — their words, not ours — led to the creation of a pan-northern body called the Northern Communications and Information Systems Working Group. It comprises representatives from Public Safety Canada, Joint Task Force North, CanNor and the three territorial governments.

Yep. Yet another obscure bureaucratic working group. Sounds boring, doesn’t it?

But if you happen to be one of Nunavut’s long-suffering internet users, a category that includes numerous businesses, organizations, governments and thousands of regular people, the creation of this working group is good news. Because one day, they may end up figuring out how to pay for a broadband internet system that actually meets your needs.

The same applies to the equally long-suffering clients of Iqaluit’s Bell Mobility cell phone service, which is notorious for its limited performance and its numerous dropped and incomplete calls. When you need it, it’s never there — and that’s their only guarantee.

And if you’re a government official struggling to provide public services across Nunavut’s 25 small communities, this group’s work could offer betters ways of sharing and transferring data from one place to another. Right now, telecommunication service levels are so poor, government workers in small communities must copy data files onto portable thumb drives so they can be shipped by air. This includes photos taken for driving licences and picture ID cards, now essential for air travel in Canada.

Another example is a new software system for payroll management the Government of Nunavut installed at the insistence of the Auditor General of Canada. It didn’t work. Human resources workers in small communities don’t have enough internet bandwidth. So they went back to an old spreadsheet system the auditor general has roundly criticized for its contribution to weak financial management at the GN.

It’s fun and highly pleasurable to heap scorn on organizations like Northwestel, Bell Mobility and Qiniq, the wireless broadband system operated by SSI Micro of Yellowknife. Everybody does it because no one knows who else to blame.

But this attitude will not fix the problem.

The root cause of Nunavut’s telecommunications is financial. It’s related to the way governments, especially the federal government, sets minimum service standards and levels of subsidy.

In their report, aptly entitled “A Matter of Survival,” the communications working group points out that unlike more advanced modes of communication, the voice telephone system in the Arctic receives the most reliable and predictable annual subsidy.

That’s because of a CRTC decision that dates back to 2001. Under it, Canada’s telephone companies pay into a national contribution fund that helps Northwestel cover the cost of offering reasonably affordable local and long distance phone services.

Since 2009, that fund has put $20.9 million per year into Northwestel’s coffers. Don’t begrudge them the money. Without it, hardly anyone in Nunavut could afford to pay for telephone service. It’s a system that more or less works.

But for more advanced telecommunications, like broadband internet, no such contribution fund exists. Instead, Industry Canada and other agencies have used a patchwork system made up of mostly of one-time grants and free satellite bandwidth contributions from Telesat Canada.

That system isn’t working, especially in Nunavut, where the private sector, whether it be Northwestel, Bell Canada or SSI Micro, have demonstrated that they can’t do it alone. That’s because of the prohibitive cost of satellite bandwidth, upon which the entire Nunavut territory is utterly dependent.

The result is that instead of buying what they need, all customers end up buying what they can afford — and that’s not nearly enough.

This means the federal government must take action. Telecommunications is a federal responsibility. This means it’s the Harper government that must take the lead in building a better system for the Arctic and the CRTC, which must regulate it for the benefit of consumers.

The first step for Canada must be the establishment of minimum service standards for all Arctic communities, based on the exploding demand for broadband internet and its mushrooming role in the delivery of government services.

The second step should be the development of an aggressive new strategy aimed at delivering those minimum service standards. Such a strategy should likely included the creation of an expanded national contribution fund for building the kind of high-quality broadband telecommunications network that can support the many applications that Arctic governments and citizens have become increasingly dependent on.

This is not unrealistic. The government of Australia will spend $43 billion over eight years to offer high speed internet to the entire country, including rural and remote regions. Canada’s planned investment amounts right now only to about $200 million over a similar period.

Canada can do better. For far more information on this issue than we can possibly give you here, point your browsers to www.aciareport.ca. JB

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