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Federal broadband wish-list contains little for Nunavut

Task force fails to address high satellite costs

By JIM BELL

IQALUIT — After five months of work, Ottawa’s national broadband task force has provided Nunavummiut with little advice on how to develop the territory’s fragile, unreliable and prohibitively expensive Internet system.

The task force’s 103-page report, released last Wednesday in Ottawa, contains no specific suggestions on how to remove the greatest barrier to Internet access in Nunavut: the high cost of leasing satellite time.

“I think if Brian Tobin swallows that report undigested, we’ll be handicapped here in the North forever,” said Orin Durey, a Baker Lake resident who made a lengthy submission to the commission.

Amid much fanfare, Industry Minister Brian Tobin announced the creation of the 35-member task force last January.

At the same time, he reiterated the Liberal government’s utopian commitment to the provision of broadband — or high-speed — Internet access to all Canadian businesses and households by 2004.

Slow speeds, high costs

Like many Nunavummiut for whom the Internet has become an essential tool at home and work, Durey is tired of slow, costly connection speeds.

Because his community still doesn’t have a private Internet-access provider, Durey connects to the Internet at home by using his modem to make long-distance calls to southern ISPs.

He says the connection speeds that Ardicom provides to schools and government offices in Baker Lake aren’t any better.

A consortium made up of Arctic Co-ops Ltd., Northwestel and a group of aboriginal birthright corporations, Ardicom was supposed to provide a high-speed digital communications network across Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.

After Ardicom won a $25 million territorial government contract in 1997 that enabled the development of its network, many third-party users became disappointed by the company’s high prices and slow connection speeds.

“The entire community is sharing a 68k line,” Durey said.

The broadband task force’s mandate was to identify the barriers that prevent rural residents from gaining access to the Internet.

Their overarching principle, stated in their report’s executive summary, is that all Canadians, no matter where they live, should have access to broadband network services to improve health care, education and economic development.

One-time costs

The task force estimates in its report that the one-time costs of connecting all Canadian households to basic broadband services include the following:

• Satellite or fibre connections to unserved communities: $1.3 billion to $1.9 billion

• Connecting public institutions: $500 to $600 million, depending on the mix of technologies

• Connecting businesses and residences: $900 million to $2 billion

• Funding for “community champions:” $50 to $70 million.

The task force recommends these costs be shared between business and government.

But their report makes few suggestions on how people in remote regions such as Nunavut can reduce the crippling year-to-year costs of leasing satellite time.

In Nunavut, the high cost of transmitting data via satellite has been identified as a major barrier to the development of even basic dial-up Internet access in many communities.

Durey suspects that the membership of the 35-person task force was weighted too heavily in favour of corporate Canada. Task force members included the CEOs of high-tech companies such as BCE, Nortel, Telesat, Rogers, Alcatel, Lucent and AT&T.

“They’ve got their big hands out. They’re looking for a big government subsidy during a time when all these dot-coms are going down the toilet,” Durey speculated.

The report does say that whatever support governments decide to offer to remote communities should be sustained only until private firms are able to do it without help from governments.

They point out that while 77.7 per cent of Canadians live in urban centres, the remainder are scattered throughout 4,781 small rural and remote communities.

Connection plans

To connect these underserved communities, the task force recommends that broadband connection plans include:

• the creation of links from the national network to points of presence in communities

• connections for public institutions such as schools and health care centres

• plans to allow all businesses and residents to connect, if they wish

To help achieve this, governments would either:

• provide incentives to build infrastructure, or

• stimulate demand through support for “community champions” or through various forms of financial support.

The report also makes numerous recommendations aimed at improving training, content development and government regulation of the industry.

They also recommend that the federal government consider lifting restrictions that restrict foreign investment in Canada’s telecommunications firms.

But after Ardicom’s disappointing performance, Durey says he’s skeptical about anything changing any time soon in Nunavut.

He points out that the GN’s much-bragged-about plan to use tele-health technology to cut down on medical travel costs may never happen — because of transmission delays between ground stations and satellites.

For example, the task force says that for tele-health communications to work effectively, transmission delays cannot be greater than 250 milliseconds — or .25 seconds.

“Well, by satellite you’re never going to get less than 600 milliseconds,” Durey said. “What we’re getting here in Baker, because we’re doing a double hop to the satellite, the minimum is never less than 1200 milliseconds, never.”

The government of Nunavut’s own broadband task force is expected to issue its own report by the second week of July.

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