Friday, August 12, 2005
Broadband comes to the North
|The Ottawa Citizen|
August 11, 2005
Tucked into a jagged glacier carved fiord off the aquatic rich Cumberland Sound in southeastern Baffin Island, the village of Pangnirtung, population 1,276, is nestled on a tundra flat flanked by majestic granite mountains towering up to 1,000 metres. It seems like one of the most remote communities on earth.
But the large satellite dish on the picturesque hamlet's western shore symbolizes a very different scenario. Newly connected state-of-the-art 2.5 GHz wireless broadband technology provides Pangnirtung and 24 other fly-in communities in Nunavut, who are connected to a network called QINIQ -- named after the Inuktituk root word for search -- with vital high-speed Internet access to the outside world and to each other.
The residents of Pangnirtung (which means "place of the bull caribou'') are excited about the effect high-speed broadband access might have on their personal and business lives. Mika Etooangat, 21, has already noticed several significant improvements over dial-up access. "I can download music a lot quicker, and it's great for instant e-mail and chatting with friends. Before when I used dial-up, it was not only slower but would sometimes disconnect on its own,'' says the assistant senior administrative officer of the Pangnirtung Hamlet Office & People's Community Centre.
Peter Wilson, general manager of the Uqqurmiut Centre for Arts & Crafts, which sells Inuit artifacts around the world, including soapstone carvings, prints, and tapestries, is bullish on the potential economic advantages broadband access to the Internet will present. He plans to have an e-commerce website up and running before the end of the year. And he's also looking at broadband-enabled, voice over Internet protocol telephony.
"Long-distance telephone charges for business are so high here. But with voice over IP, we could end up paying a lower fee and, if all is working well, have better sound quality, too. That's a real important way broadband can improve business telecommunications not just in Pangnirtung, but throughout Nunavut as well,'' he says.
Donna Copeland, manager of the town's Auyuittuq Lodge, also has dreams for broadband access. Her lodge houses many of the region's backpackers before and after their trek through the pristine Auyuittuq National Park (translation -- "the land that never melts''), site of the 5,100 square-kilometre Penny Ice Pack glacier and many of Nunavut's highest mountain peaks. She'd like to have the service available for cruise ship passengers -- seven ships will visit Pangnirtung this summer, for instance -- to be able to come into her motel and get quick access to their office and personal e-mail.
Copeland already enjoys broadband Internet access personally, calling it a "godsend'' in part because it features speed "that is just phenomenal.'' The 19-year resident of Pangnirtung signed up for a broadband connection in her home at the first opportunity last winter when she volunteered to sample one of the new modems, several months before they went live to the rest of the hamlet.
She became an instant convert. "Dial-up served a purpose, but now that I can compare the two, there's really no comparison,'' Copeland says. "Broadband offers the power and speed I need to complete my transactions.''
The fact wireless broadband access has been deployed across Nunavut at all is, in and of itself, a magnificent technological feat. At 1.994 million square kilometres, Canada's newest territory occupies one-fifth of Canada's total area. But it is isolated. Only about 30,000 people inhabit this vast, mostly pristine space, whose largely treeless landscape sparks to life in the perpetual light of summer, sporting brilliant hues of tiny purple and yellow flowers like Purple saxifrage and Arctic poppies on its hillsides.
The population is dispersed over 25 communities and three time zones. Approximately 7,000 live in the capital Iqaluit (meaning "place of many fish''), near the southern end of Baffin Island.
Travel from one community to the next is usually only possible by air. Some ports also have a limited shipping season (generally from July to October in the Eastern Arctic). Only two communities -- Arctic Bay and Nanisivik, some 20 kilometres apart at the northern end of Baffin Island -- are connected by road.
How then, did wireless broadband Internet access become a territorial-wide reality?
One of the early visionairies was Adamee Itorcheak, who founded a small Internet Service Provider company named Nunanet Worldwide Communications Inc. in August 1995. "Adamee has worked tirelessly not just for Iqaluit, but all Nunavut access, for so long,'' says Lorraine Thomas, secretary-treasurer of the Nunavut Broadband Development Corporation. "Adamee had a vision of this wireless connectivity scenario in the late 1990s when nobody else had a clue about it, and he has devoted a lot of his energy, time and money into it.''
Itorcheak, a native of Iqaluit who in 2001 was named to the National Broadband Task Force, painstakingly built his business to help give Nunavut's capital city a leg up on technology when the new Territory officially came into being on April 1, 1999. But only 10 other communities in Nunavut at that time had Internet connectivity -- and that was mostly confined to government workers, many of whom heralded from southern Canada.
Despite the efforts of a few pioneering ISPs such as Nunanet, Sakku Arctic Technologies in Rankin Inlet, and PolarNet in Cambridge Bay, there weren't many cost-effective Internet services available to the Inuit people at that time, who comprise about 85 per cent of Nunavut's population. But things began to look up when the federal government signaled its intention of connecting Canada's North to the high-speed information freeway.
Industry Canada announced ia subsidy program in October 2000 (which many believed would have cost at least $1 billion), for the goal of providing all Canadian communities with high-speed broadband access by 2004. This was quietly shelved and replaced by the $105-million Broadband for Rural and Northern Development (BRAND) program in September 2002.
In 2001, the Nunavut Broadband Task Force was established as a local conduit to the National Broadband Task Force so that the fledgling territory's voice could be heard. It made 27 recommendations before completing its mandate, and was succeeded by the not-for-profit Nunavut Broadband Development Corporation (NBDC) in 2003. NBDC's initial job, in part, was to oversee implementation of several key recommendations from the territorial Task Force, including one calling for affordable, easy access to broadband services for residents of all communities, no matter how remote.
"When you actually do the math on how much it costs to put in a satellite infrastructure to, say Grise Fiord (Canada's northernmost settlement, with a population of less than 200 on Ellesmere Island in the High Arctic) versus Iqaluit, then compare that to the number of possible users and divide it on a per-capita cost, no business person would have connected Grise Fiord,'' Thomas points out.
But consistent with the Task Force's recommendation, the project wasn't assessed on a pure business model basis. All communities were connected, and basic broadband subscriptions for all users are now equitably priced at $60 a month across Nunavut. This equality exists in spite of the special challenges and costs that were involved to make high speed access a reality in the most remote communities.
Another major responsibility of NBDC is to ensure that broadband access enhances economic development within Nunavut. One strategy designed to fulfill this is by having community service providers (CSP) located in each of the Territory's 25 venues, thus ensuring some of the subscription revenues stay within the community.
In Pangnirtung, for instance, the Uqqurmiut Inuit Artists Association is the local CSP, represented by Wilson and craft gallery supervisor Jackie Maniapik of the Uqqurmiut Centre for Arts & Crafts. The CSPs in all 25 communities collect a margin of approximately 20 per cent of gross revenue for their endeavours. In return, they assist customers hook up their modems (which requires a downpayment of $150), and act as the initial troubleshooter should any problems occur.
NBDC also tendered bids for a contractor to build both the satellite infrastructure, and provide the so-called "last mile'' hooking up all houses and buildings to the satellite dish within communities. SSI Micro Ltd. of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, was awarded the contract for both those jobs in May 2003.
Although located in the neighbouring territory, SSI Micro had previous experience in Nunavut. In fact, they'd previously built satellite infrastructure in ten communities, including each of Nunavut's three regional capitals -Iqaluit, for the Baffin Region, Rankin Inlet, for Keewatin and Cambridge Bay in Kitikmeot, so those were among the first communities targeted for deployment.
The logistics of laying satellite infrastructure for the other 15 communities posed a number of significant challenges, admits Ryan Walker, manager of the solutions group at SSI Micro. "One of the toughest parts of building these sites was getting the civil work done. The satellite dish is 4.5 metres, so it's got quite a wind load on it, and you need a fairly sturdy foundation to handle that,'' he says.
Moreover, the weather was often a major thorn in the side. Nothing moves in a blizzard, and accommodations are notoriously expensive in Nunavut because of supply and demand, so SSI Micro faced extra costs of about $250/night per person when forced to keep crews weathered in for days at a time.
Even when equipment did move during the construction phase in 2004 and 2005, things didn't always go according to script. "The biggest surprise we had was when our dish for Clyde River showed up in Grise Fiord, which is of course the most inaccessible, furthest away community you can imagine,'' Walker says, adding that it took about one and a half months to charter an airplane to get the extra dish moved to its proper destination.
Improvisation was often the order of the day, too, when smaller communities didn't have all the necessary equipment for installation. In one, SSI Micro's crew had to set up an artificial pulley system using a long gin pole at the end of a loader in order to get the elevation required to put the satellite dish in place.
There was also pressure from the federal government -- as a condition of its $3.885 million in funding -- to complete the project in one year, rather than two as originally planned. To meet the new March 31, 2005 installation deadline, SSI Micro had to order equipment a year earlier in order to ensure it would be aboard the sealift barges in time. There was little or no margin for error given the brief shipping season in the southern Arctic, and even shorter one in the higher latitudes where some communities can only expect one boat a year -- provided the ice breaks up enough to let it through safely.
Today however, with approximately $10 million having been spent to put the infrastructure in place as a resulting of funding from all three levels of government and private business, 2.5 GHz wireless broadband has become a reality across the Territory, with most of the smaller communities having joined the QINIQ network between May and July of this year. Concerns about whether this technological feat could really be pulled off have been replaced by the hopes and dreams of residents across Nunavut.
In Sanikiluaq, a town of about 700 in the Belcher Islands about 165 kilometres west of Quebec in Hudson Bay (territory belonging to Nunavut), Bob McLean, manager of Sanny Internet Services, is the hamlet's CSP. He helped establish a website listing various local artists' carvings, entitled Soapstone Artists of Sanikiluaq, back in 1998. The site subsequently became e-commerce enabled to sell Inuit art over the Internet to clients all over the world. He hopes the new broadband capacity will provide a much more cost-effective and quicker means for customers to transact through that website.
Darrell Ohokannoak is the manager of PolarNet, an ISP based in Cambridge Bay, capital of Nunavut's Kitikmeot Region, located on Victoria Island some 300 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle.
Only about 15 per cent of Cambridge Bay's 1,400 residents are connected to the Internet, but those who've chosen to take advantage of broadband access are "excited it's finally here,'' says Ohokannoak, who also chairs the NBDC board of directors.
Subscribers in the distant northern community are using it in much the same fashion as their counterparts in the south -- online shopping for items like electronics and clothing, online games such as poker, and Internet booked flights, hotels and car rentals for vacations outside Nunavut.
Broadband makes things much easier for members of such a remote community, not only because the service is much faster, but also significantly more affordable. "Before when we had to buy our bandwidth, it was really, really costly and we could only afford so much. To cover that bandwidth, we had to charge customers a rate probably 50 times higher than in the south, but we'd probably be 100 times slower because of our small population and base of users,'' Ohokannoak says.
In Cape Dorset, in southwest Baffin Island, Jim Williams is taking advantage of broadband access to teach an introductory business course at Fanshawe College in London, Ont. The newly appointed training and development officer with the Government of Nunavut's Department of Community and Government Services moved to Nunavut from southern Ontario in April 2005.
"I was teaching that course when I came up here, and (Fanshawe) asked me if I'd finish it online,'' he says. "When I first came up, we didn't have broadband, and (trying to do) that was awful. You would eventually get through (via dial-up) but it just took so long. Now with broadband access, it's so much easier. You can get back to students right away; it's phenomenal,'' he adds.
In Sanikiluaq, housing foreman Arthur Lebsack of the QAMMAQ Housing Association, who is responsible for inspecting all public housing maintenance in the hamlet, says broadband access to the Internet for such activities as pricing materials has saved him a considerable amount of time inside the office. This, in turn, allows him to get out in the field more to inspect buildings and "take care of the men I'm responsible for.''
The only downside to broadband access, Lebsack jokes, is that it gives him less time to satisfy his caffeine fix. "With dial-up, you could go out for coffee and then come back into the room,'' he laughs.
Broadband access could also potentially enhance the educational experience by allowing for greater online interconnectivity between students in schools within Nunavut and the rest of Canada, as well as for professional development of teachers, according to Murray Horn, Iqaluit based director of corporate services for the Government of Nunavut's Department of Education.
Broadband technology could also allow a specialized teacher based elsewhere to supplement secondary school instruction in a particular subject area such as physics to a remote community, where there might only be a single teacher to cover all subjects and perhaps multiple grades as well, he adds.
"I think we're limited only by our imagination in terms of what we can do with this technology,'' Horn says.
Another important civil application will be to improve municipal operations through shared knowledge. For instance, municipalities within Nunavut often experience a rapid turnover of knowledgeable staff in senior level positions, particularly those that involve southerners, who only tend to stay in Nunavut for a few years. Thus, each new person, particularly in a remote community, tends to "reinvent the wheel because they don't have access to what the other municipalities are doing,'' Thomas says.
"A new senior administrative officer (SAO) in Kimmirut, for example, may have no idea how to handle water truck delivery and sewage management. They'll run into a whole series of problems that other municipalities solved long ago. If they've never done it, how do they connect with other SAOs to figure out how? The way out is to provide training opportunities for people who live there,'' and broadband access will "connect these communities via the Internet in a useful way,'' she adds.
Another potential application in the planning stages is to provide residents of Nunavut with a geo-science software program that will give them satellite images of the Territory, which can in turn be further scaled down in considerable detail. This is especially important in a culture whose traditional activities are intensely land-based, such as hunting and fishing. Moreover, the Inuit people must first be consulted by business and government with respect to proposed commercial activities such as mining or oil drilling because of the potential environmental impact such activities could have on animal migration routes or other matters of importance to their traditional way of life.
For broadband access to ultimately succeed in Nunavut, admits Itorcheak, there will be a nurturing period involving a lot of trial and error and growing pains. "It's like with a newborn, where it takes time to learn to crawl, then to walk, then to run. Eventually people will pick up on it like they did with video and desktop conferencing. You can do a lot of different things, but it will take time,'' he says.
In the process, he adds, it is important that the traditional knowledge of the Inuit culture be respected and not completely trumped by technology. For instance, no matter what computer models say, there is no substitute for the experience of hunters who've passed down oral knowledge about things such as routes to avoid because of ice shifting at various times of the year.
"We've got to incorporate what we've learned about technology into our communication, but at the same time, keep in the back of our minds that we cannot abandon everything we learned from our parents and forefathers. We must also take into account traditional knowledge,'' Itorcheak says.