This week, the Canadian federal government announced a $600 million deal with global satellite operator Telesat. The deal, combined with an additional federal promise to increase Universal Broadband Fund spending from $1 billion to $1.75 billion, is intended to increase internet connectivity in remote areas of Canada, specifically Northern Canada.
Telesat, which uses Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites to connect with grounded data networks, said in a press release that the agreement will “provide the reliable, secure, fibre-like broadband connections needed to bridge the digital divide in Canada.”
LEO satellite technology is the newest innovation promising to make the internet accessible. The promise of widely-available satellite internet is an attractive—albeit expensive—investment, and companies like SpaceX, Amazon, and Ottawa-based Telesat are racing to secure partnerships with local and national governments, as well as with other telecommunications brands.
Many Canadians have praised the Telesat deal, including Thunder Bay MP and Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu, who called the announcement “a huge step toward connecting communities.”
Those living in Northern Canada aren’t celebrating just yet.
According to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), a public organization that operates as a regulatory body for broadcasting and telecommunications, 40.8 per cent of households in Canada’s rural communities—including those up North—don’t have adequate access to the internet.
The CRTC defines adequate access as “an internet connection with access to broadband speeds of at least 50 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload and access to unlimited data.”
Megabits per second (Mbps) is a measurement that defines the download rate of an internet connection. It takes around one megabyte (MB) to load a webpage, but operations requiring more data, like watching a ten-minute long YouTube video, require closer to 43 MB.
In 2019, local Nunavut telecommunications providers Northwestel and Bell were able to provide customers in 25 communities internet speeds of up to 15 Mbps—a fraction of the CRTC’s targets.
CRTC announced in August it would be contributing $72 million towards broadband internet improvements for communities across Manitoba, N.W.T, and Yukon. Funding is acquired through the CRTC’s broadband fund in partnership with regional providers Broadband Communications North and Northwestel.
The broadband fund serves to help accelerate broadband internet access, specifically by providing services with faster speeds, greater data allowances, and higher quality. Most of the projects selected for funding this year will reach maximum speeds at CRTC target levels of 50 Mbps.
Although satellite and cable internet access is slowly improving across Northern Canada, many gaps in access remain. From individual cost to community autonomy, how are industry leaders getting Northerners online?
There are solutions to affordable access in #Canada 🇨🇦 such as #communitynetworks says @mebuell who sets out how the government can make signficant progress towards its goal of ensuring universal broadband for all Canadians https://t.co/lcPR1Dea73 #GrowInternet pic.twitter.com/14590oyqyd
— Internet Society (@internetsociety) March 9, 2020
“If widespread, high-quality, affordable internet access was made available, it would be life-changing for people who live in the North,” Mark Buell said in an interview with The Pigeon.
Buell is the North American regional bureau director for the Internet Society, a global non-profit that supports and promotes internet development around the world. He believes that the need for efficient internet goes beyond leisure—especially for Indigenous peoples.
“Indigenous communities are disproportionately affected by the connectivity gap,” Buell said. “In terms of actual access and infrastructure, it’s rural and remote communities [that suffer], and more often than not [those are] Indigenous communities.”
COVID-19 has provided a drastic example of how limitations to in-person interactions make the internet connectivity gap all the wider. The pandemic has forced a shift online for school, work, and medical care—but for some Northern communities, those in-person services didn’t exist locally in the first place.
“The northern regions of Canada could benefit the most from the internet,” Buell explained. “There aren’t a lot of services in these communities.”
“Education opportunities barely exist or don’t exist at all. Access to health care services doesn’t exist, or [it’s] minimal at best.”
Instead of travelling south to attend higher education institutions, Northerners in isolated communities could take online courses and still earn full degrees, and instead of taking multiple plane trips for non-emergency doctor’s appointments, people could simply have a video call with a medical professional.
“Telemedicine and electronic health records […] could really improve health care delivery in Arctic communities,” Buell said. “The only problem is you need internet access for them.”
Sadly, until internet connectivity improves, virtual services can’t, either.
Even in cities like Whitehorse, Yukon, where high-speed internet is widely available, locals like Saba Javed say usage limits still restrict the amount of time someone can spend online.
Javed is a University of Toronto student who has lived in Whitehorse for most of her life. She told The Pigeon her family has been struggling to work and socialize online without going over their monthly internet usage limits, especially during COVID-19.
“The biggest barrier to internet usage is the cap—not having unlimited data—and the cost that incurs,” she said.
While monitoring their monthly internet limits has always been routine for Javed’s family, living and working at home during the pandemic is compounding their stress.
“[My siblings and I] were all doing Zoom lectures and studying for hours at a time, and both my parents were working from home,” she recalled. “We were constantly trying to balance our usage per person in order to stay under the cap.”
There aren’t any unlimited internet plans for Northern Canadians yet, meaning everyone deals with limits, even if they could afford more expansive plans.
In August, Northwestel announced it would be offering unlimited internet usage plans for those in more populous cities by Nov. 2, provided it gained approval from the CRTC.
By the end of October, however, Northwestel had delayed access to these plans, saying the CRTC needed more time to consider its application. The company is yet to release a new projected access date.
The CRTC has informed us they need more time to consider our application for unlimited Internet. This means the new unlimited plans will not be available November 2. We continue to get ready, and we will keep you up to date as we know more.
— northwestel (@northwestel) October 29, 2020
Javed says unlimited internet, and therefore zero overage fees, would remove a significant mental strain for her and her family.
“We also have tenants and so [there are] multiple families using the same internet service,” she said. “[It would mean] alleviating the anxiety of having to constantly worry about overage fees because they do really increase very quickly.”
Another important factor when discussing Northern internet access is the individual cost. While hitting milestones for internet speed and unlimited access is valuable, these efforts mean nothing if internet services cost too much.
At the time of publication, Northwestel’s fastest plans—with speeds of up to 15 Mbps—cost between $103.97 and $299.95 per month, with usage caps of 300 and 325 GB, respectively.
When Northwestel announced its now-delayed unlimited internet plans, customers were told they could expect to pay an additional $10 to $50 per month for the service on top of their existing fees.
On ensuring Northern Canadians across every community have access to internet services, Javed noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has made the internet more valuable than ever.
“The pandemic has revolutionized what it means to work, and what it means to work from home,” she said. “Our access to the internet is far more tied to our livelihoods than it ever has been before.”
“I think that access to the internet is not just the ability to have better entertainment and leisure time. It’s really about having a level playing field for equal opportunities.”
Not every Northerner is excited about the prospect of more satellites promising to help isolated communities.
In Iqaluit, the Arctic Internet Exchange (AXI), a Nunavut-based not-for-profit, actually hopes to reduce satellite dependency in Northern communities.
The AXI works to foster independence from telecommunications providers by offering specialized training, development, and operational support for communities so that they can own and operate their own services.
By setting up an Internet Exchange Point (IXP), users in a given geographic area can exchange data locally without relying on expensive—and often slow—global satellite networks.
Instead of sending a signal from a community, to a satellite, then back to another user in the same community, IXP’s make faster, more reliable communication between nearby internet users possible.
This is called a community network, and it’s something that the Internet Society has also been helping to establish in certain communities across North America.
Buell and his bureau have spent the past few years focusing specifically on supporting community-driven access solutions in Indigenous communities, including those up North.
Building a connected world isn't always about sitting behind a screen. Our #CommunityNetworks bring together dynamic individuals who help to build and shape a brighter Internet future for everyone. https://t.co/XiAlsM1U9C #GrowInternet pic.twitter.com/Qzo6q2ckzO
— Internet Society (@internetsociety) July 6, 2020
“These are small networks, usually not-for-profit,” Buell explained. “You’ve already reduced costs because the community owns it for the benefit of the community. The challenge is getting access to that backhaul and satellite is very expensive.”
Backhaul refers to the part of a network that communicates with the global Internet. That’s where a large fraction of the cost to run internet services originates, and the reason why organizations like Nuvujaq think corporately-owned satellites shouldn’t be the only option for connectivity.
“Even to get service into a community using satellites for backhaul [is] going to be very expensive per customer,” Buell said. “Something like a community network can alleviate some of that cost.”
One recent example of a successful community network is Ulukhaktok, N.W.T., which VICE featured in a 2019 article about the high price of the internet in Canada’s North.
The fly-in community of 400 or so residents worked together to set up their own internet network—complete with a massive central satellite dish and an antenna on top of every house—to allow residents to avoid backhaul costs.
The system installation costs for Ulukhaktok residents were an estimated $1 million without even mentioning on-going satellite costs, making it a cost-saver in the long term but a burden upfront.
Despite success stories like Ulukhaktok’s, Buell believes private sector satellite-based solutions are the foundation for widespread internet access in regions where community-based ownership options aren’t as feasible.
“[LEO] could be a very good solution for the North,” he said. “There have been a lot of delays in launching it, but because the satellites orbit the earth at a much lower altitude, the time it takes for the signal to go from the community to the satellite and back down is greatly reduced.”
“For the most part, Northern communities are going to be satellite dependent.”
While Buell is optimistic that further federal investments in Northern internet access is a good sign for the government’s priorities moving forward, he hopes to see more federal promises being made to ensure these internet connections are sustainable.
While no customer estimates have been released for Telesat-based plans, SpaceX-owned Starlink, which provides similar satellite-transmitted internet access, has released some figures for its customers across the U.S. After a hefty initial equipment cost of $499 USD for an antenna and router, beta testers reported paying around $99 USD per month for the ultra-fast service.
Starlink can’t be compared directly to Telesat, but it’s ahead of the Canadian company in terms of development and could provide some insight into what’s in store up North.
So what will it mean for Northern customers’ bills when the Telesat LEO satellites are put to use?
“The federal government announced their $1.75 billion for connectivity and said there’s a focus on the North and a focus on Indigenous communities,” Buell said, referring to the Universal Broadband Fund. “But that $1.75 billion is really just for capital costs—the cost to build the infrastructure—and there’s no operating [costs included].”
While the urban centres up North have higher populations, and therefore a higher demand for internet, Buell noted that there’s no market-based incentive to provide isolated communities with further access.
Without federal subsidies and partnerships like the Telesat deal, private industry leaders likely wouldn’t be contributing to Northern internet access in the first place.
“The real challenge is that we’re talking about communities [where] there is no market-based solution,” he said. “No private sector company wants to provide service to a very Northern remote community because you’re talking a market of maybe 300 people [with] massive investments in infrastructure to provide access.”
Individual consumers will continue to have to pay the higher-than-average costs associated with better-quality connections.
“You build a network in a community in the Northwest Territories or Nunavut, [and] the cost to deploy that network may be covered,” he explained. “But when backhaul is going to cost the community tens of thousands of dollars a month, it’s still not an affordable solution.”
Buell hopes the Canadian government will take a more personalized approach to each community’s needs going forward, instead of funding initiatives without the guidance of Northern representatives.
“Decisions are being made about the future of people who live in Canada based on who’s getting what money for internet access,” he said. “If we continue down the road we’re on, if we continue to approach addressing the connectivity gap the way we’ve done for the last 20 years, we’re doing a great disservice to the people who need it the most.”