Managing Editor, Sheena Kennedy Dalseg, spoke with Mayor Madeleine Redfern about the political and economic limitations resulting from the digital divide in Nunavut.
Sheena Kennedy Dalseg (SKD): Thank you very much for agreeing to speak with us. There’s a lot of information that tells us that Internet access in Nunavut is slow, unreliable, and expensive. You’ve talked about this many times in different venues. Perhaps you could briefly describe the major issues with respect to connectivity, from your perspective?
Madeleine Redfern (MR): Well first of all, we’re completely satellite dependent. We don’t have fibre optic compared to other provinces or territories which do have them, especially into the main cities or capitals, and the Internet is very slow. It’s very inconsistent in speed and quality, often drops, and then in addition it’s extremely expensive.
SKD: Thank you. You are a very active, politically engaged person,. How does the lack of connectivity impact your ability to do your work and to be a political leader?
MR: Well, I think it affects everyone and probably in the exact same way. It makes it very difficult to be able to do our work, not only in governance but in management or in delivery of any public services, or programs.
One of the fundamental things that you need to be able to do is communicate and connect with your constituents, with your staff, with your partners both within the community, within the territory, and of course, nationally or internationally.
It’s very hard when you can’t send files, or anything with a large amount of data, or download documents, or even go onto the Internet and be able to access video content. As a result, everything is hampered.
There’s a lot of wasted time and productivity, a lot of frustrations. And then, of course, citizens who are trying to contact their elected officials, or anyone working in government or in the public sector, is also hampered from being able to have that easy access, which everyone else mostly takes for granted.
SKD: What about the economic or education-related implications of unreliable and/or expensive Internet?
MR: It’s important that we all have access to the best available information, and a lot of that is online or being shared by others. There are a few programs, such as CISCO and Connected North, but that’s very limited. It doesn’t make [the Internet] available and accessible for all educational purposes. People learn better if they are able to have access to information on a topic that interests them rather than just being able to go to the library. There’s lots of really good information at libraries, but in the North, our libraries are small, and the budgets are small. The amount of resources available is limited.
In most cases, the first place that anyone goes looking for information on any topic of interest, whether it’s health-related, or dinosaurs in the case of my grandson, to knowing what’s happening in energy, people go to the Internet. And while of course, not everything is accurate on the Internet, there is a substantial amount of very legitimate sources of information. You learn your research skills. You learn to be able to ascertain what a valid source of information is.
One big challenge, of course, is that we can’t do, for the most part, distant education, or webinars because our connectivity is simply too slow, or it’s unstable. Or, of course, it’s so expensive that it is prohibitive even if you were able to address even the issues of speed and stability.
The new launching of the satellite is going to improve speed and the amount of data that people can access, which is good, but the issue, I found out from SSI Micro when they improved their speed and connectivity is that their customers in Nunavut ended up using their full data allowance in two days instead of over a month. So the overages costs become quite significant when you’re still talking about satellite based delivery. Even with the new $50 million dollars that the federal government has provided to NorthwestTel to improve connectivity plus the new satellite, [Internet is still] going to be very expensive for people. Costs rarely ever go down. The real solution that’s required is fibre optic.
In networks and cables, 99 per cent of the world’s communication happens on fibre and that’s for a specific reason. It’s not only the quality of the connection and the speed and the amount of data that you can put through, but also the cost. [In Nunavut] we’re just about to increase our speed three-fold, which is going from 5MB per second to 15[MB]. When I look at the speeds of what’s happening in southern Canada or elsewhere in the world, we’re just falling further and further behind even with our supposedly significant incremental increase of three times more. Three times of very little is still very little, especially when you consider that in the south, you have unlimited data and bundling features to reduce costs. The bundles of the Internet, cable television and cell phones – you can get packages of $100.00 that include all three; two hundred dollars for the top end package. We could only dream of that quality of connectivity in that cost based on sort of stability, speed and data, and cost!
SKD: You live and serve as Mayor of Iqaluit, Nunavut’s largest city, but you’re also president of NAM, representing all the municipal governments in Nunavut. Is there a difference between the smaller communities and the larger communities in terms of how they’re facing these issues? What they’re dealing with?
MR: There are differences. Some communities still don’t have cell phone service. The challenge is that the amount of broadband that is available for the whole territory makes it difficult in so much that Iqaluit easily consumes 70 to 75 per cent of the broadband. What that means is that we effectively dominate and choke the available amount of data, especially during work hours when people are doing all their jobs. So, getting Iqaluit off of the satellite would not only benefit Iqaluit, but also instantaneously benefit all the other communities. It would free up all that space that is being used by users in Iqaluit.
I would be happy to pass to you the resolution that NAM members had passed at the last AGM. Telecommunications has always been an issue [NAM cares about] and continues to be until we see some major investments and some transformative changes in this territory.
I saw recently that Yukon received $80 million dollars from the federal government for an additional fibre link that deals with redundancy and we have yet to receive our first fibre link in Nunavut. I almost cried.
They already have fibre. This was a redundancy line. Yes, it’s good to have redundancy, but when you’re talking about an entire region of Canada, the only one without any fibre, I mean that’s partly why I’m lobbying on behalf of this territory to ensure that we have strategic investments. [When the federal government] throws in $50 million dollars towards Northwest Tel and effectively most of that money goes to Telesat resulting in a tiny incremental increase in speed and not really in data or let alone in cost – that really harms and hampers us. The disparity, the digital divide, between us and other Northern regions, not only within Canada, like Northwest Territories, Yukon, but even the other Arctic regions, it is unbelievable! We [in Nunavut] are just falling behind more and more.
SKD: The gap just gets bigger and bigger, because things just continue to move forward everywhere else.
MR: [They continue] to improve not only on yearly basis, on a monthly basis! And a lot of the applications that have been developed require a significant amount of broadband and stable fast speeds. We can’t do clouds here. We can’t do real-time data updating of our retail stores from Iqaluit North Mart to their headquarters down in Winnipeg. Real-time data updating allows the stores to track the sales and [the fact that they can’t do that here] affects their ability to do orders for the next cargo jet that comes in. We do manual inventory of stock in our stores. It’s virtually unheard of. You can’t do web-based creations here, either. There are just so many applications that could help improve government and businesses conduct their work more efficiently, and we can’t do it.
SKD: This is showing my own ignorance on the topic a little bit, I suppose—but why is it that Yukon gets the redundancy line and that’s not happening in Nunavut? I mean obviously there’s a leadership role for the federal government, but what about the other governments and the Inuit orgs? Are there things that they could be doing to move this forward?
MR: Well let’s talk about, first of all, our Member of Parliament (MP). We need a good strong Member of Parliament, and we only have the one and he is not affiliated with any party. He doesn’t have the support of a party network and resources. And given his status and situation, I don’t know, but I sense, and I’ve been told, that he is not doing the work of many of the other Northern MPs, such as Yvonne Jones, or Larry Bagnell, or Michael McLeod. They are very much fulfilling the role of an MP to inform and educate the federal government and lobby for those resources, which means money for specific projects. That is such a requirement.
It’s taken over five years to actually change the conversation [about connectivity] in Nunavut. I remember going to meetings back in 2012 where at a telecommunications summit in Iqaluit, people were saying, “Oh, fibre optic is pie in the sky technology.” And I was like, “It’s been around for decades.” “Oh, it’s never been done in the Arctic.” Well there’s fibre [00:15:56]. There’s fibre to [00:15:59].” I mean there was so much misinformation and scaremongering or fearmongering, “Oh that it’s going to harm the fish and the whales and the wildlife.” No, the majority of cables are subsea cables. And the cables from 50 years ago are not the same cables of today and people didn’t even know what the size was. They didn’t understand how the data flowed through the fibre optic lines or the fibre optic fibres. We were so far behind in most of our leaders even understanding the technology, or our bureaucrats for that matter. I remember one deputy minister saying, “Oh, we don’t need fibre. Our system makes it easier so that hackers don’t hack us.” This is actually a complete falsehood. It’s taken a long time to even get our territorial leaders, or senior management, to understand that we need fibre, let alone to actually advocate for it.
The problem, too, is that I find many of our leaders, or senior managers, have the tendency to tell Ottawa what the problem is without actually advocating for a solution. And because telecommunications is seen as something very high-tech, or technical, a lot of people feel unable or very uncomfortable to speak to it. You don’t need to be a high-tech technician to lobby for telecommunications. You do need to know enough about it so that you can explain what your current situation is, compare it to other jurisdictions and why and what you need, and have a timeline and costs and all that so you have an informed lobbying pitch.
There’s also perception that if you have any telecommunications, then that’s okay. It’s like power, you know, if the lights turn on, you don’t have an energy issue when in fact, 17 of your 25 power plants may be at or beyond their projected lifespan in use. The fact that they’re operating in the red and about to fail, like the [00:19:03] did, which caught on fire and burnt to the ground, or the [00:19:09] generator completely burned out, or the rolling power that Rankin Inlet faced a few years back because of a failing generator. Unfortunately, we’ve got a lot of people that don’t understand the issue well enough to realize that we’re in critical mode [with the Internet].
There was an Arctic Infrastructure Assessment report done back in 2010, followed up with a Northern Connectivity report, I think published around 2014. Most people haven’t read the reports and failed to realize that these are advocacy tools.
SKD: Do you see a relationship between connectivity and the broader goals from the land claim and Inuit self-determination in general?
MR: Well interesting that you bring that up. Most people don’t realize there was a communications article in the Nunavut Land Claim Agreement that was removed at one point in time during the negotiations. [The negotiators] recognized that in order for this territory to succeed, it needed communications. Unfortunately, that article got removed from the land claim and that was a big mistake. It would have required, and brought to the forefront quite regularly, a need for the different levels of government to assist this territory in having adequate telecommunications, which meant telecommunications to govern, telecommunications to manage, telecommunications to delivery program services, telecommunications to connect with all three levels of government and the Nunavut organizations in achieving all the other goals that are stated in the Land Claim Agreement. Without telecommunications, you can’t actually do the work of any of the IPGs [Institutions of Public Government], whether it is the Nunavut Water Board, the Nunavut Impact Review Board, or what have you.
It’s absurd that proponents from a major development have to send up their digital documents on a thumb drive by plane. Previously it used to be CDs, and then previously before that it was floppy disks. But nonetheless, 15 years later, or 18 years later, we’re still having data flown to different levels of government for them to do their work. You cannot send large data files between decision-makers in the territory, let alone any proponents or partners who are situated in the south. It’s absurd.
SKD: That’s really vivid imagery of all the information being flown up on a plane.
MR: People take down their PS4 Play Stations so that they can actually get their games loaded onto their console. People wait until they’re down south to update their software or download their software. Everything is now cloud-based. When I needed to renew my Microsoft Office, I couldn’t do it for 12 days in a row, literally. And I shudder to think how much money that cost on my Internet bill because it kept dropping and then it would have to restart, and drop, and restart and drop. When I flew down to Ottawa, I was able to download Microsoft Office on the free hotel Internet within approximately 20 minutes. Everywhere you go down south, there’s free Wi-Fi now, whether you go to Starbucks, or to McDonald’s, or any coffee shop, any restaurant.
SKD: Yes, it’s just expected now.
MR: We have visitors that come to Iqaluit, including VIPs and they can’t understand why there’s no Wi-Fi at any of our coffee shops, at the Blackheart Café, and they laugh, understandably so, because they could not afford to provide that to their customers with a $5.00 cup of coffee. Even when you stay at the Frobisher Inn at a cost of almost $300.00 per night per room, there were some folks up last week doing a federal government consultation on Indigenous language legislation and the woman was like, “I can’t access my emails. I couldn’t send information to my colleagues. The things I had forgotten, I couldn’t print. I couldn’t do anything.” And I’m going, “Well, welcome to our live, every day.”
SKD: It must be incredibly frustrating trying to work in those conditions. The last question I have is just about what you’ve learned and seen in your extensive travel over the last few years. I mean, I’m curious to know whether there are conversations that are happening in the circumpolar world, or in other places that you visited that we should be having here in Canada, or any promising practices that you’ve seen that our leaders could look to for inspiration for how to make this happen?
MR: There are conversations and work and research there being done; for example, with the Arctic Council, with the Arctic Economic Council, with ICC. For the most part, it’s recognized that telecommunications is absolutely required in our Northern regions, that not just for the benefit of Northerners, but actually for the benefit of their nation states and the need for Arctic regions to offer to be able to communicate amongst themselves with respect to governance, trade, research, even with respect to culture. And most of the Arctic regions have prioritized telecommunications as a key area of public investment.
So you look to Greenland, and they got their first fibre up to [00:29:39] and then they’ve been scaling the fibre out to the other communities. You look to Iceland. You look to the Scandinavian countries. Even within Canada and our other Northern regions, you look to Northwest Territories, the Yukon, Alaska, with both their terrestrial and the subsea fibre. There’s work underway to connect the Eastern portion of the Hudson Bay. There’s some work being done to improve connectivity in Northern Quebec. No yet absolute firm plans with fibre per se, but with terrestrial and microwave. And Labrador has gotten some additional monies as well, but still behind on fibre. And then you have Nunavut, which is the one region that sticks out within Canada, within Canada’s North, within the Arctic regions and Arctic nations as effectively almost the dark part as it relates to telecommunications. It’s the dark zone. When I go to other places and they hear about our situation, they find it absurd and they are quite dismayed about the state of telecommunications in one fifth of Canada’s land mass.
SKD: Is there anything else that you think that our readers should know that we haven’t yet talked about, or any final words you have on this issue?
MR: It’s the first thing that anyone notices when they arrive, whether it’s Minister Sohi, whether it’s a journalist, whether it’s a tourist, whether it’s even a miner, is the state of our telecommunications. And they usually figure it out within 30 seconds of getting off the plane when they turn on their phone and are trying to check their messages, or connect on Facebook, or Twitter and it is not instantaneous. It is the one frustration that they will experience their whole time while they’re here, and usually the first thing that they will tell people when they get back south. It’s that stark. It’s that obvious. And then they resume back to their normal life, while we continue to live it.
And what I fear is even with the announcement of the $500 million dollars for the normal broadband and the $50 million dollars that we received in Nunavut, is the perception that oh, things have improved significantly because we’ve gone from 5MB per second speed to 15MB per second speed. Often the numbers aren’t even really considered. They’re just like oh, you know, Nunavut’s getting three times faster Internet. That sounds like a lot. But just compare those speeds with what the average Canadian enjoys, let alone those at the top spectrum.
SKD: I think the average is 50MB. Is that right?
MR: There would be almost no Canadian who would accept our upcoming fastest speed: 15Mbps. And that’s 15 at the best of the day. One of the things that I wanted to share with you before we end is that Janet King [President of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency] and I organized an Eastern Arctic Telecommunications Summit at the end of January 2018. We’re going to have a follow up in probably this Fall, simply because we’d never had one with all the telecommunications industry reps, nor with government – it was the first of its kind. And it was useful because most people, even from one Northern region to another, from Northern Quebec to Nunavut to Labrador weren’t aware of what was happening or aware of what each other’s companies were doing. The second meeting will attempt to now be more strategic in looking at this part of Canada and how do we can work together to strategically lobby and implement the solutions and investments required to connect this part of Canada. My goal is to build the capacity of the decision-makers and to have Northerners lobby more effectively in Ottawa. ◉