Internet in the North is slower and much more expensive than in Southern Canada. In Yellowknife, it’s reasonably fast and reliable due to a fibre optic line from the south. In most small Dene and Inuvialuit communities, Internet is shaky. They are on Satellite DSL, a satellite beaming to a community dish, then out to houses over copper phone lines. Communities along the Mackenzie River are DSL – copper wires linked to fibre – which is better than satellite. We’ll talk about the fibre later.
Megabytes per second measure Internet quantity (gigabytes – GB – are 1000 megabytes). The DSL Satellite communities, like Lutsel K’e or Whati, get downloads of 5 megabytes per second (mbps). Communities along the fibre link up the Mackenzie, like Fort Good Hope, get more – 15 mbps download and 1 mbps upload. Yellowknife gets lots more – 250 mbps on downloads and 15 mbps upload. The south gets 1.5 gigabytes per second download, 940 mbps upload and unlimited monthly usage. (These are advertised speeds.)
The slower the Internet service, the more people pay. Communities on satellite pay $1.75 each a GB for the first 45 GBs, then $3 per GB over the limit. The DSL communities pay far less, 38 cents per GB up to 200 GBs overages at $2:50 per GB. Fibre optic Yellowknife pays far less with 37.8 cents each GB up to 500 then $1.50 each GB over.
This brings us to the Mackenzie Valley Fibre Link (MVFL). The GNWT reportedly paid Canadian construction giant Ledcor and Northwestel $82 million to put in a half-inch diameter fibre optic line from outside Ft. Simpson to Inuvik – 1,154 km. The quote below from the then finance minister sets the stage for public expectations.
YELLOWKNIFE (March 28, 2017) “The completion of the MVFL hits a major milestone to not only improve, but to provide state-of-the-art telecommunications infrastructure to remote communities in the Mackenzie Valley region. The MVFL will significantly reduce the digital gap for residents and businesses of the Mackenzie Valley, improving the efficient delivery of government programs and services, and promoting the expansion of Inuvik as a world-class satellite ground station.” – Robert C. McLeod, Minister of Finance
What McLeod promised happened in Inuvik but not the communities along the Mackenzie. They did enjoy better internet – upgraded to DSL – but nowhere near Yellowknife’s fibre optic strength.
Fibre optic links to the communities stopped at an equipment shack where the Internet switches on to the existing copper phone lines to the homes. The public was led to believe that these communities would be served by the fibre optic link. Even the CRTC pushed that idea.
Ottawa, 24 August 2017 Telecom Decision CRTC 2017-300 – Recently, the Government of Northwest Territories (GNWT) launched the Mackenzie Valley Fibre Link (MVFL) network, which is a high-capacity fibre network owned by the GNWT that provides wholesale high-speed access services to sparsely populated remote communities in the Northwest Territories. It currently serves the communities of Fort Simpson, Wrigley, Tulita, Norman Wells, Fort Good Hope, and Inuvik (the MVFL communities).
The idea was that local entrepreneurs would step in to do ‘the last mile,’ a term in the industry for getting Internet to the people. But paying customers must cover the costs and as there is no economy in these communities, there is no ‘business’ case. So Northwestel hooks the Internet up to the decades old telephone lines.
Here’s the question in my mind: Colonial history explains why there is no economy in these communities. There is 50 or 60 percent real unemployment. The majority of people live in public housing. Why did the fibre link project not figure in the huge benefits of providing the communities with quality wireless Internet to public housing, laying the foundation for an economy? Had that been done, education at home would be easier now, helping salvage some of the school year.
Instead, the corporate interests of NorthwesTel, Ledcor, the GNWT, international data dish customers, even Inuvik’s local Internet provider New North Networks, were served (all good things) but the Dene communities were entirely left out. What was the GNWT thinking? Were the Deh Cho, Sahtu MLAs informed of the end result? What is the CRTC thinking when it designs regulations that favour the well heeled urban user, exploits and ignores the needs of people whose need is greatest and would benefit most?
So the MVFL is the biggest glowing worm in that Northern can of fibre optic worms. Going forward, we should all try to understand how the Internet works so we can help governments and tech companies build what the people need. The CRTC should upgrade its thinking to 2020 and beyond, become a champion again of the people. Go sign the online petition started by Northerner Melaw Nakehk’o at change.org. Almost 3,000 Northerners have. Send the beastly many headed monster a message.