Opinion: The North needs more equitable, accessible Internet
Published on the Edmonton Journal
While March 16 marks the virtual National Day of Action for Affordable Internet, many households in rural communities across the Northwest Territories (NWT) cannot participate.
In smaller communities like Tulita, Tsiigehtchic, and Ulukhaktok (which recently experienced an eight-day internet blackout), frustratingly slow and expensive Internet access impacts our ability not only to access online information and services, but also to participate fully in consultations and forums intended to address digital divide challenges.
As northern organizations and partners in the DigitalNWT initiative, we have firsthand experience of these challenges. Northern centres like Yellowknife and Inuvik enjoy the fastest connectivity in the territories but have nowhere near the service options available in the urban south. The 29 rural, predominantly Indigenous communities report higher prices and slower average download speeds — and some households can’t even connect to Internet speed tests.
COVID-19 social distancing measures are further increasing pressures to work, learn and socialize virtually. Some NWT households have paid upwards of $2,000 for a month of data overage fees, and people use their mobile phones as hotspots to work remotely or complete schooling. To manage scarce and expensive bandwidth, Zoom meetings are restricted to audio links and cloud services are limited.
While telecommunications providers continue to promise better and more affordable Internet, we need more awareness of how community members are actually experiencing their services. Detailed public information will help in the design of equitable and appropriate policies, as well as technical and operational solutions that work for residents of diverse northern communities. Without such information, NWT organizations and citizens are limited in assessing the challenges and opportunities of our increasingly digital society.
Canada’s national telecommunications regulator — the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) — is aware of these issues. In January 2021, it launched a public consultation about services in the NWT, Yukon and Nunavut (CRTC consultation 2020-367). While over 250 individuals and organizations expressed their thoughts, submissions from most smaller communities consisted of just one or two people. The CRTC-commissioned report on Telecommunications Services in Northern Canada found residents pointing out “the main concern is that prices are too high for the Internet service received, which is hampered by network outages and slow speeds.” Research we conducted presents household survey and interview data that reports similar challenges, particularly for people living in rural NWT communities.
These efforts still paint a limited picture of Internet services in our communities. To help fill this gap, the CRTC asked telecom provider Northwestel to provide details about their services. This included requests for information about planned network improvements, network reliability, number of subscribers to their services, annual revenues, and their report on consultations with communities — as is required for the company to access $20.9 million in Broadband Fund subsidies from the CRTC.
But when some interveners asked for this information to be made public, Northwestel stated that much of it was considered proprietary, and therefore should not be disclosed. The CRTC is currently reviewing this file and will issue a decision on whether the information should be made public.
In the meantime, northern organizations continue calling for more equitable, accessible Internet. Nearly one year ago, Dene Nahjo founder Melaw Nakehk’o started a petition. In 2018, the Internet Society held the annual Indigenous Connectivity Summit in Inuvik and published a community report that highlights policy recommendations developed with northerners. This year, DigitalNWT is encouraging NWT residents to test their internet speeds (where possible) and share results using #NWTDigitalDivide.
NWT residents are tired of facing cost and access barriers to virtual consultations, online public services, and broadband-enabled economic and community activities.
On March 16, join us in advocating for more affordable, equitable Internet services that reflect solutions expressed by and for northerners.