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Time to narrow the digital divide


Local dial-up Internet service first came to Nunavut in the summer of 1995, thanks to a small private business in Iqaluit.

Seven years later, people in most Nunavut communities are still waiting for basic dial-up Internet access. So are people in many other communities throughout northern Canada, including Nunavik.

Of Nunavut’s 26 communities, only residents of Iqaluit, Rankin Inlet, Baker Lake and the five communities of the Kitikmeot enjoy access to dial-up Internet access. In the 10 communities outside Iqaluit with decentralized Nunavut government functions, government employees put up with a primitive form of satellite access that’s so slow it’s sometimes unusable. For private users in most of those communities, there’s nothing, except for expensive long-distance modem calls to southern Internet service providers.

In the year 2002, this is unacceptable.

The Nunavut government’s response to this situation has been equally unacceptable. In February 2001, the territorial government sponsored the creation of a 16-person task force to advise the government on how to bring broadband — or higher speed — Internet service to Nunavut.

More than a year later, the government has yet to produce a report based on the work of that group, which was made up of people from government and private business.

It’s original purpose was to complement the federal government’s broadband task force to make sure Nunavut’s voice was heard. But the federal task force finished its work in June 2001, issuing a report that recommended up to $4 billion in spending, without the benefit of the Nunavut task force’s work. In December, Finance Minister Paul Martin killed the idea by refusing to put any broadband money into this year’s budget — and still, no report from Nunavut. Brian Tobin, the federal industry minister who tied his reputation to the broadband initiative, soon slunk out of federal politics with his tail between his legs.

Perhaps the greatest casualty in the broadband fiasco was the notion of basic dial-up access, the kind of simple Internet access you can get by dialing a local phone number. Perhaps if Industry Canada had set its sights on a more modest goal — providing basic dial-up access to Canadians in remote and rural communities and leaving broadband to a later time — their efforts may have been taken more seriously.

At any rate, the broadband issue arose, attracted some public debate and then died. After that time, Nunavut residents are still waiting to view the result of their own government’s work on that issue.

So until the government of Nunavut gets its act together, the only recourse left for Nunavut residents who want basic dial-up Internet access in their communities is to appeal directly to Canada’s telecommunications watchdog, the CRTC.

That’s what the hamlet of Chesterfield did last August. Other Nunavut residents, along with municipalities and other organizations should think about doing the same.

In November 2000, the CRTC issued a landmark decision. Most Nunavummiut will remember it as the ruling that opened the North to long-distance telephone competition and allowed NorthwesTel to offer 10-cent-a-minute long-distance rates. A less well-known, but equally significant part of that CRTC decision allowed NorthwesTel to begin a four-year, $67-million service improvement plan.

Unfortunately, the CRTC did not let NorthwesTel add local Internet access to that plan. The phone company, in a prior submission, said it wanted to spend $5.3 million over the next four years to provide local Internet access in some smaller communities.

But the CRTC told NorthwesTel to wait two years. If no northern-based Internet service providers stepped forward to offer dial-up access in small communities in that time, then they would look at the idea of allowing NorthwesTel to do it.

CRTC inserted this provision, apparently, in response to submissions from Nunavut-based ISPs. But since then, virtually no northern-based service providers have stepped forward to offer dial-up Internet where it was previously unavailable.

In Baker Lake, the hamlet council contracted with an aboriginal-owned business in Winnipeg to provide local dial-up access to residents. In Arctic Bay, meanwhile, a locally based ISP went belly-up.

It’s likely that few, if any northern businesses, will ever step forward to offer dial-up access in Nunavut’s small communities. If it made sense to do that, those businesses would be there already.

The Hamlet of Chesterfield Inlet pointed that out in a letter to the CRTC last August.

“In our municipality, no business case has been made, or realistically will be made in the future for any Internet service provider to deliver local dial-up Internet access,” said a letter signed by Chesterfield Inlet’s mayor, George Tanuyak.

Chesterfield Inlet’s letter also said that “the exclusion of local dial-up Internet access from the NorthwesTel service improvement plan causes a substantial financial hardship for the citizens and businesses in our community.”

So NorthwesTel is again seeking CRTC permission to offer dial-up access in small northern communities not served by anyone else. They’re also seeking permission to offer call display and other extra telephone services that are in great demand in small communities.

This time around, we hope the CRTC agrees to NorthwesTel’s request, provided that the regulator also monitors the company’s finances closely. NorthwesTel is now using a $17-million-a-year supplemental fund, provided by the nation’s telecommunications industry, to make up for the revenue it lost when it slashed its long-distance rates.

That fund could also be used to make up for the cost of offering dial-up Internet access in small, unprofitable communities. Nunavut residents should encourage the CRTC to make it so — and not because it’s in NorthwesTel’s interest, but because it’s in the public interest.


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