By Anthony Capkun
August 1, 2013 – The demand for improved telecom connectivity in Canada’s North is real, says a new Conference Board of Canada report, and “the interest in the issue has never been greater”.
Published by the Centre for the North, “Mapping the Long-Term Options for Canada’s North: Telecommunications and Broadband Connectivity” provides an overview of the challenges and recommendations to support the long-term telecom approach Northern communities need.
“Connectivity is one of the linchpin issues that cut across multiple sectors of Northern development and policy-making,” said Anja Jeffrey, director, Centre for the North. “Aboriginal community development, Arctic security, resource development and social outcomes all depend in some way on a sustainable, reliable and affordable system of telecommunications and broadband connectivity.”
• An average Northern Canadian consumer pays $139/month for basic cell phone, home phone and high-speed internet access. An average consumer in Nunavut pays $171/month for a similar basket.
• The CRTC’s target for residential internet download speeds continues to elude the North, especially in Aboriginal communities.
• Almost half of Aboriginal communities in the Conference Board’s Northern connectivity profile depend on satellites, compared to 18% for non-Aboriginal settlements. This reality raises affordability issues for communities.
Five major lessons emerge from the research
1. Next-generation networks and new media introduce threats and opportunities for stakeholders in the Northern connectivity landscape.
2. Canada’s regulatory framework and basic service objectives for Northern telecom must adapt to the challenges of next-generation networks.
3. Northern stakeholders should investigate options for shared network infrastructure and shared IT services in high-cost areas. Open-access infrastructure can help distribute the cost of deploying next-gen backhaul, and promote fair and transparent pricing.
4. Aboriginal participation in network development and IT services deserves encouragement and support. A one-size-fits-all approach to Aboriginal inclusion is insufficient and may be counterproductive.
5. Telecom is critical Northern infrastructure around which multiple systems of governance co-exist, overlap and, potentially, conflict. Stakeholders must work together to ensure that mutual development goals, common objectives, and network efficiencies are achievable, despite differences in local policies, cultures and business approaches.
The report benchmarks the high costs that residents pay for personal telecom and high-speed internet services across Canada’s North. It also uses hypothetical cases to describe some of the diverse challenges facing Northerners. There is a clear need for increased capital investment, both to build up-to-date infrastructure and to improve reliability through redundancy. This investment will have to be supported by governments.
Though money alone will not suffice, cautions the board: the ability to maintain both infrastructure and devices also will depend on training, attracting and retaining sufficient IT professionals and technicians. Ensuring access in high-cost regions, where many families have below-average incomes, will require attention to affordability. This, in turn, will depend on careful regulation of investment decisions, service plans and subsidy requests from service providers.
For Northerners to get the most out of these investments, improvements in capacity and access will need to be accompanied by more Northern and Aboriginal content and greater support for digital literacy.