Bridging the North’s digital divide

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Across much of the city at this time of the year, as winter tightens its icy grip with darkness and cold, finding an organic tomato at an affordable price can be like digging for gold.

And up here, where the farm-to-table distance is measured in thousands of kilometres, getting a grocery bag of fresh produce can indeed cost close to its weight in that precious metal.

Since fresh fruits and vegetables can’t be grown due to the inhospitable climate, a lot of our food must be shipped long distances from producers in the south. The logistics involved in this long and complex supply chain is part of the reason why prices are so high.

But, as reported in Yellowknifer last week, one entrepreneur has launched a venture that could help close the farm-to-table gap in the North.

Heather Stewart’s shipping company BBE Expediting Ltd. has developed new software called GoBox that could make food more affordable for Northerners. The software simplifies the shipping process, which can lower the cost to the consumer.

Unfortunately, not many Northern businesspeople are following her example. According to a new study by the Business Development Bank of Canada on the use of digital technologies, Northern businesses are among the least tech-savvy in the country.

The study examined the business models of 2,000 companies in Canada to measure how they have incorporated digital technologies into their day-to-day operations. These technologies ranged from email and social media tools to e-commerce and management systems.

The study found that 61 per cent of Northern businesses were technologically averse while only 15 per cent were embracing new digital tools, which means our businesses are among the most techno-shy in the country along with those in B.C. and the Atlantic provinces.

As one of the country’s most remote cities tries to prepare for a future beyond diamond mining, this study should be a wake-up call for Yellowknife.

Regardless of the industry, the work of the future is going to involve the use of digital tools. Software skills and computer coding are becoming increasingly important in every field and if the city hopes to foster an entrepreneurial economy, its entrepreneurs will need to get with the times.

According to the study, the majority of technologically averse businesses have performed poorly over the last three years while more techno-centric firms enjoyed faster sales and more profits.

There could be a number of factors explaining why Northern businesses have been slow in adopting new technologies.

Maybe lure of a high-paying mining job or a chance to earn a steady government income has dampened the entrepreneurial fires of some prospective businesspeople?

But there can be little doubt that a lack of affordable and reliable Internet connectivity is keeping large segments of the business community from going digital.

Internet across the North has always been more expensive and less reliable.

Remote locations, few customers and vast distances between communities mean infrastructure costs are high and incentives to invest are low.

A lack of competition among providers – SSi Micro and Northwestel are the only two providers in the city – is not helping.

If you use Shaw in Calgary, there’s a 75 Mbps plan that costs you $85/mo with a 500GB cap.

In Yellowknife, if you’re using NorthwesTel — there’s a 100 Mbps plan at $139/mo with only a 300GB cap.

The NorthwesTel plan does offer a faster download speed but much less data and for more money.

Things have been improving but very slowly.

In 2016, the CRTC made broadband Internet an essential service in Canada and set up a $750 million fund to invest in fiber-optic lines to connect more remote Northern communities.

There is also the $82-million, 1,200 kilometre Mackenzie Valley Fibre Link, which was completed last year and has greatly improved internet speeds in some communities.

But there can be little doubt that the North is playing catch-up with the rest of the country.

Despite the difficulties, Northern businesses need to persist or risk going the way of the floppy disc.

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