If there is a lesson to be learned from the demise of Taqramiut Nipingat’s Internet service in Nunavik, it is this:
Canada’s governments and Canada’s telecommunications industry have failed to deal with Canada’s biggest telecommunications issue: equality of access.
Amidst all of the hype and nonsense that various self-appointed experts have everywhere been spouting about the so-called information highway, there is one growing absurdity that no one wants to talk about.
And that is that those who need it the most must face the greatest barriers when they attempt to use it to better their lives.
Those who need it the most Canadians who live in the Arctic and other remote and rural communities must put up with astronomical prices, unreliable customer service from phone companies, and the appalling ignorance of policy makers everywhere, even in the North.
And those who need the most also have the least access to the training and education they need to take advantage of new communications technologies and new media.
Yes, it’s clear that the people who run TNI’s board and management made a major blunder when they agreed to pay $5,000 a month for each of three 64 kilobit per second lines between Nunavik and the Internet backbone in the South.
But it’s a forgiveable blunder.
The Internet is the most powerful communications tool ever created by human beings. And contrary to what many of the media corporations who have jumped onto the World Wide Web will tell you, it’s much, much more than just a new kind of television.
As an entertainment medium, the Internet is a bore. But as tool for education and self-expression it has no equal. Those who are able to gain access to it and learn how to use it possess tremendous advantages over those who don’t.
So it’s understandable that TNI would have taken such a risk in order to provide people in at least three Nunavik communities with access to such a powerful tool.
But in agreeing to do so, Bell Canada also forced them to pay $5,000 a month for each of three low bandwidth 64 kilobit per second lines.
In most of Canada’s major cities, people can buy the same amount of bandwidth for $400 a month or less. These are people who already have easy access to huge university libraries, cheap cable TV service and low cost transportation routes. Those who need it the least pay the least.
Several years ago, Industry Minister John Manley issued a policy statement on behalf of the government of Canada that stated that all Canadians have an equal right of access to new communications technologies.
His government, and the corporations who control Canada’s telecommunications elite have failed to live up to that principle. They have failed to find ways of providing affordable access to northern Canadians.
That doesn’t stop Ottawa, of course, from cynically exploiting the favourable publicity generated by isolated success stories, such as Rankin Inlet’s community telecentre at the Leo Ussak School.
But those successes are the exceptions that prove the rule.
Only three of Nunavut’s 26 communities have direct access to the Internet Iqaluit, Rankin Inlet and Cambridge Bay. And the access providers in each of those three communities must also pay exorbitant rates about $3,000 a month to Northwestel, a phone company that’s just Bell Canada with a green logo on their phone bills.
The GNWT, for all its faults, is at least trying in a modest way to correct the imbalance. The territorial government has agreed to become the “anchor” customer for a new and faster telecommunications service that will be built by the Ardicom consortium and to which all NWT communities will one day gain access.
But even that network better though it may be than what we have now is not a “high-speed” network by today’s standards.
Under its contract with the GNWT, Ardicom is expected to set up a system that transmits data within a bandwidth of 384 kilobits per second.
That means the satellite-based network of transmission they’ll set up will be able to send or receive 384,000 pieces of electronic data every second.
That may sound like a lot but it’s only the bare minimum that’s needed for “business quality” videoconferencing and telemedicine.
Canada, a country that was built on telecommunications, a country that’s supposed to be a world leader in that area, has still failed us.
The information highway may run from sea to sea, but north of the 55th parallel, it turns into an unmarked trail over a sea of thin blue ice.