The Poverty of Broadband Infrastructure in Nunavut Can and Must Be Ended

Posted October 6, 2021
By Alexandra Flynn

Residents of Nunavut are acutely aware that connectivity is profoundly necessary - yet unavailable - impeding access to technological innovation in fundamental areas like health, education, cultural expression, and political participation. In May 2021, Canada’s federal government announced $6.9 million in funding for private telecommunications companies, Northwestel and SSi, Micro to bring high-speed Internet to residents of Nunavut. The press release proudly stated, “The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how much we rely on our connections. Now more than ever, Canadians across the country need access to reliable high-speed Internet to work, learn and connect with friends and family from home.” This funding is yet another piecemeal approach to a dire emergency, not a sustained, funded, long-term strategy for desperately needed broadband infrastructure in the Arctic.

Nunavut, located in the Eastern Arctic, is one of the world’s most expensive places in the world for what is ultimately very poor internet services. Numerous reports have documented that broadband in the Arctic is largely unavailable and, even where available, expensive and often unreliable. A 2020 study found that the fastest possible speed available in the territory is eight times slower than Canada’s average. But adequate broadband is no fool’s paradise. It has been realized in other northern nations with coherent funding, political will, and seeing digital infrastructure as a basic human right. It is long overdue for Nunavut residents to have what other parts of Canada have long assumed as normal: available and affordable broadband infrastructure. It is also necessary for Canada to meet its treaty promises to Inuit, whose lands have long been used for the country’s own strategic gains.

The Nunavut Land Claims Agreement and digital infrastructure

The Government of Nunavut came into existence in 1991 after decades of work struggle by Inuit. Key was the Inuit forging an extraordinary political cohesiveness that led to the creation of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement (NLCA). In 1971, Inuit formed the national organization Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, now Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), to lobby the Government of Canada to increase their autonomy, introduce self-government, preserve Inuit language and culture, improve communication, monitor the development of mineral, oil, and gas exploration in the North, and to represent Inuit interests to the federal government in all aspects of northern development. 

In the decades since Nunavut was created, the Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated (NTI), which represents Inuit of Nunavut, who are the beneficiaries of the lands and resources held under NLCA,  and the federal government have disagreed on the ongoing implementation of the agreement. Canada has taken the view that it has minimal responsibility. In December 2006, after negotiations over implementation reached an impasse, NTI sued Canada for failing to live up to its treaty implementation obligations. Before the lawsuit, Canada had vetoed 17 attempts by NTI to resolve the impasse through arbitration. The case was ultimately settled in 2015 for over $250 million in damages, a new process for implementing provisions of the agreement, and a renewed arbitration process, requiring that Canada come to the table. 

The troubling relationship between Nunavut and Canada is manifested in the poor broadband infrastructure. The Nunavut Implementation Commission (NIC) declared in 1995 that a state-of-the-art electronic communications network was critical to Nunavut’s success. In NIC’s report, Footprints in New Snow, considerable space was devoted to the need for a reliable, efficient communications network enabling Nunavut to function as a mature government capable of meeting the needs of  residents. The report stated, “While computers and networks should not be seen as a panacea for the social and economic challenges that confront Nunavut, tackling such challenges will require these fundamental tools. The ability of Nunavut to market products and services in this new information-based economy will be dependent on suitable infrastructure to access and distribute information, and on the skill sets of citizens to operate effectively in the new economy.” 

The NIC acknowledged that cost was the biggest barrier to adequate levels of digital infrastructure. The report advocated that Information Highway services should not be viewed as a subsidy, but rather as an investment. Importantly, the NIC observed that, even then, service levels in Nunavut had not kept pace with other areas of Canada and that “this gap could grow even faster with the new technologies and services that are currently being launched. The price of entrance into the electronic market place will be higher the longer the basic infrastructure remains absent, and the social and economic penalties of an inability to participate, will be that much greater.” NIC’s recommendations were not implemented.

Fast forward to 2018, when Aluki Kotierk, the president of NTI, stated at a Special Senate Committee on the Arctic:

As Inuit, we’ve made a commitment to Canada. We consider ourselves Canadian, and we expect that Canada will make a commitment to us as we live in our homeland in the Arctic. What we’ve experienced throughout history has been that Canada swoops in when they need us for sovereignty reasons and various initiatives that serve the purpose of Canada. Whether it be resource extraction or sovereignty, Canada is present. But when there’s no use for Canada, then we feel forgotten. When I spoke about the need for a comprehensive infrastructure strategy, that is the point I’m making. Canada needs to look at itself and say: Are we truly a northern, Arctic nation? If we truly are, we have to make investments and commit to the Arctic peoples of this country.

Kotierk asserted that Nunavut has an infrastructure deficit in every imaginable area, “from housing to broadband, from small craft harbours to roads. Our needs are both large and small. They range from basic community infrastructure, housing, roads, wastewater treatment and recreational centres to large economically driven investments such as alternative energy solutions, Internet connectivity, ports, et cetera.” NTI’s view is that Canada has not completed its nation-building exercise in the Arctic. While the country made massive infrastructure investments connecting the east and west coasts, it has not invested in infrastructure connecting the Arctic, including in the area of broadband, which is now profoundly important for most areas of life in Nunavut.

The links between adequate, affordable broadband, education, and health that will enable Nunavut to achieve increased Inuit participation in government employment to a representative level are clear. Digital exclusion through the form of weak broadband will make it very difficult for the provisions in the NLCA to bear fruit.

Digital exclusion in Nunavut

Nunavut residents face significant challenges in relation to connectivity. A territorial government has governed Nunavut since 1999, with 25 municipalities, including the capital city, Iqaluit. The population as of 2019 is 38,780 people, almost a third of whom are 14 or under. Unemployment among the Inuit is very high, between 30 and 70 percent depending on the measure used and the community in question, with the highest levels of unemployment is in the smaller and more isolated communities. There is a severe housing shortage in Nunavut that adversely affects the health of Inuit, in particular children. In addition, the health of Inuit lags far behind that of other Canadians. Life expectancy is ten years lower than the rest of Canada. Many health indicators are getting worse, including mental health, with suicide rates the highest in the country. Inuit leaders are deeply concerned that the housing, education, health and suicide situation have reached crisis proportions and have not being addressed by the federal government. 

A lack of infrastructure is a fundamental contributor to the challenging situation faced by a large number of Inuit in Nunavut. Nunavut leaders have long advanced that telecommunications and broadband infrastructure are essential to communities for education, health, and economic needs. In Nunavut, broadband is critical for obtaining mandatory educational and health programs that southern counterparts take for granted, as well as enabling well-established technological resources, such as high-resolution classroom learning and immunization tracking to prevent epidemics. As the ITK stated in 2018, “Low broadband and poor telecommunications infrastructure means Inuit are unable to take advantage of telehealth services and the services that can be offered through more advanced health care technologies.” Broadband is also needed to participate in the global economy, whether as an individual needing e-banking due to the absence of banks in most communities, or to launch a small business and transact with customers. 

Broadband networks require a “backbone” or physical infrastructure to connect users to the Internet. In southern Canada, this mainly happens through millions of kilometres of fibre optic cable, laying underground far from view. In Nunavut, however, broadband networks use satellites to connect Nunavut communities to a teleport and data centre, which in turn connects to the fibre lines. Nunavut is the only jurisdiction in Canada solely connected through satellite. Satellites enable different local networks, but these networks do not interconnect. This means that connecting to and from different networks can require multiple satellite ‘hops’, exacerbating the slow and expensive connections. ‘Last mile’ connectivity in smaller communities is delivered with wireless technology, connecting customer devices to antennas on towers and rooftops, with data then carried to a communications gateway, which in turn is linked to a satellite. There are many issues relating to this model of broadband service provision. It can take days to fix connectivity problems; satellite capacity is much more expensive than the cost of capacity on southern fibre networks; not all broadband service providers provide service in all of Nunavut’s communities; and satellites do not provide reliable or consistent service.

Despite heavy investment, corporate Internet access providers have not provided a viable solution to the digital gap. There are a small number of providers in Nunavut, all of whom are parallel regulated monopolies that compete for subsidies. At the end of the day, consumers in Nunavut pay extraordinarily high prices for very weak Internet service. Broadband speeds of 50 megabites per second (Mpbs) or above are available to 98% of Canadian households in urban areas, but  only 41% of rural Canadian households. In December 2016, the CRTC determined access to broadband to be essential and declared a new “Universal Service Objective” which calls for all Canadians to have access to at least 50 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload speeds. As of 2019, 15 Mbps download speed is available everywhere in Nunavut, either on DSL or via a cell modem, however the rates are five times more expensive than an average southern provider package. Enterprise level connections running up to 100 Mb are also available from one provider but are priced far beyond the means of most organizations. 

Funding digital infrastructure in Nunavut

Since 2001, the federal government through various ministries has provided over one billion dollars in direct funding for broadband deployment. In 2016, the CRTC engaged in a comprehensive review of digital poverty across Canada. The CRTC acknowledged the considerable gap between southern Canadian and Arctic connectivity rates. The CRTC framed 50 Mbps download speed as a ‘right’ at the time, but two years later cut this level in half. Perhaps because of the CRTC’s scathing report, the federal government has made a number of investments to address Nunavut’s digital poverty, almost always in the form of public-private partnerships. 

The preferred federal approach is one-time contributions toward capital costs to build networks or the leasing of satellite capacity to serve remote communities rather than funding  operating costs or  ongoing repairs. Federal programs have been designed to be competitively neutral and avoid displacing private-sector investment. 

  • In 2019, the federal government contributed $150 million for the installation of approximately 1,700 kilometres of submarine fibre optic cable. The Government of Nunavut is responsible for the remaining expenses related to the project at the expense of other much-needed in the areas of food security, health, and education. The initiativeoriginally involved the construction of a submarine cable from Greenland, but increased cost estimates shifted the fibre optic cable to Quebec. 
  • The federal government promised a $85 million investment in Telesat, a Canadian satellite company, to build and test technologies for its low-earth orbit satellite constellation. The goal is to improve connectivity for smaller communities that rely on satellite. The upgraded satellite capability is intended to offer backup connectivity to Iqaluit and Kimmirut in the event of a cable outage. The Nunavut Government’s goal is to then use satellite connectivity to improve broadband service in the other communities. 
  • In 2020, the federal government agreed to help finance a $1.6 billion hydro link expansion from Manitoba, reaching up through Arviat and as far as Baker Lake. The hydro-fibre link would see the construction of a 1,200-kilometre, 150-megawatt transmission line between Nunavut and Manitoba to deliver renewable hydroelectricity energy to the region, thus reducing dependence on diesel power generation using shipped-in fuel. It will also include fibre-optic lines for high-speed internet. This expansion is likely to take several years to finalize and implement. Kivalliq Inuit hold a 51 per cent share in the project through the KIA, which would eventually become 100 per cent when the Ontario Teacher’s Plan is paid out for its investment. It is hard to tell exactly what the federal government will be contributing. Likewise, a 2019 commitment to invest $1.7 billion over 13 years for high-speed internet access in rural areas did not identify timeframes or localities, nor whether existing funding is part of or in addition to this commitment.
  • A contribution of $6.9 [million?] was awarded to private telecommunications companies, Northwestel and SSi in May 2021. A further pot of funding was provided in August, directed at communications company Telesat, providing a $790-million repayable loan and $650-million preferred share equity investment for a low Earth satellite constellation.

Canada’s funding envelopes and public-private partnerships appear to generously acknowledge the grave need for adequate infrastructure. However, they do not offer a comprehensive strategy or sufficient funding to fix the enormous digital infrastructure divide between southern and northern communities in Canada. 

Administrative processes are fragmented and complex, leading to incoherence or discord in policy development, funding and legislative frameworks. The significant neglect of broadband infrastructure investment is also exacerbated by the dozens of departments, agencies or Crown corporations that have responsibilities related to the Nunavut, including the CRTC. It is unclear how federal investments will work with other government-funded initiatives, which communities will be served, what portion of funds will be directed to Nunavut, the model of regulation, and the role of Indigenous-led governance bodies, including the Government of Nunavut. 

In the meantime, Inuit-led initiatives are underway to find solutions. In 2019, a collection of non-profit organizations on behalf of Nunavut’s 25 communities applied for and won $10 million in funding through the federal smart cities challenge.  Entitled Katinnganiq: Community, Connectivity, and Digital Access for Life Promotion in Nunavut, the proposal focused on the reduction of suicide risk through investment in peer networks, educational initiatives, and creative outlets using data and technology. The proposal seeks so create what are called ‘makerspaces’ in each community as central hubs that reduce the digital divide in Nunavut by developing community data centres and Internet Exchange Points (IXPs). An IXP establishes a location for multiple networks to meet, keeping local Internet traffic from leaving the community, and therefore lowering transit costs. Interconnected networks in Nunavut enable a significant portion of traffic that otherwise would have travelled over satellite (and back again), and the largest expense for providing service in Nunavut, to route directly from one local network to another through the IXP. The goal is to lower the costs to ISPs by decreasing the required satellite traffic. Local users on different networks will have faster connectivity when communicating to each other, establishing a community wide platform for high bandwidth applications, content and network services. 

That such an initiative is necessary – lowering Internet cost to save lives – speaks to the overwhelming neglect of infrastructure investment in the Eastern Arctic.

Digital inclusion has been achieved in other jurisdictions

There is nothing magical about the promise of adequate broadband infrastructure in Nunavut. The laws and policies of Nordic countries, Finland, and Denmark, who are world leaders in broadband coverage, are especially relevant to discussions of connectivity in Nunavut given their northern localities. As a 2016 Forbes article put it, High-quality, high-speed internet access is a way of life... The government supports it, the ISPs provide it, and the people use it.” This includes roll out in rural areas that are commercially underserved, where national governments step in to fund infrastructure up to 100%.

Finland made history in 2010 by declaring a minimum level of broadband a legal right and then augmenting the level over time. The Finnish Communications Regulatory Authority, similar to the CRTC, ensures user rights by designating a telecoms operator to provide broadband subscriptions in the areas where the supply is otherwise insufficient.The Finnish government has a national broadband strategy that supports the construction of fibre networks to areas that lack business incentives to build high speed networks no further than 100 metres from all permanent residences and offices. Under the strategy, broadband will be available to 99% of the Finnish population. The Kingdom of Denmark has also adopted multiple telecommunications infrastructure technologies to serve its far-off communities. In Greenland, which is adjacent to Nunavut, a submarine cable was extended in 2018 to provide fibre broadband internet connections to the most populous towns on the Greenlandic west coast, which are more reliable and offer higher speeds than satellite coverage. The fibre network serves 92% of Greenland’s population, with the remaining supplied by satellite connections. 

Canada must do better

Digital inclusion is unquestionably a crucial tool in enabling health, education, cultural expression, and political participation. As countless Inuit leaders have stated for decades, digital exclusion in Nunavut is not an incurable condition, but is instead emblematic of the Canadian government’s century-long disregard of Inuit well-being. Other northern countries have invested significant public funds in ensuring that residents in remote geographies have fibre connectivity, regardless of how remote or small the community. In these countries, broadband is rightly treated as necessary infrastructure and a basic human right. 

In contrast, the Government of Canada has not introduced a sustained, funded, long-term strategy for broadband infrastructure in Nunavut, one that recognizes that market solutions will not solve the infrastructure gaps. Despite scathing reports, there is no clear federal government body tasked with ensuring that the country’s last jurisdiction with connectivity via satellite is moved to the 21st century. Canada’s neglect of broadband infrastructure is part of a long history of refusal to pay its negotiated dues for sovereignty and resource development in the Arctic, a bill that must now be settled.