SSi Micro is not your typical telecommunications company. Far from it. Having built and operated satellite broadband networks across the Arctic and in a number of countries around the world, you might think that SSi stands for something like Satellite Systems International. No, SSi stands for the “Snowshoe Inn,” which is the name of the family motel, restaurant, and craft shop where the company was conceived in Fort Providence, Northwest Territories, over 50 years ago (Figure 1).
Jeff Philipp and his wife Stef founded SSi Micro in 1990. At the time, operations amounted to selling a few computers out of a tiny store beside the restaurant. Fascinated by the Internet and driven by a passion to connect the North, SSi built its first (award winning) satellite broadband network linking five communities in western Nunavut in 1998. Two years later, they built a similar network to serve nine remote communities in the Northwest Territories, establishing SSi as a leader in Northern connectivity.
A victory for Nunavut
During those early years, only a handful of communities in Nunavut had consumer Internet access, and it was slow dial-up service. Most of the territory had no idea what the Internet was or how it could benefit people in their daily lives. But that all changed when, in 2002, a group of dedicated visionaries formed the Nunavut Broadband Development Corporation (NBDC) in an attempt to connect all 25 communities of Nunavut. The first board members were Clare Basler, George Metuq and Adamee Itorcheak in Iqaluit, Robert McLean in Sanikiluaq, Art Stewart in Cape Dorset, and Patrick Tagoona in Rankin Inlet. Managing the project were Dave Smith as president and Lorraine Thomas as executive director. Thanks to their persistence, the first high speed network to serve all of Nunavut was underway. In 2004, with an $11 million commitment from Industry Canada, NBDC issued a request for proposals to build the network. SSi won the bid, in large part because of their commitment to match the $11 million federal investment. In May 2005, Qiniq (meaning “to search” in Inuktitut) was launched (Figure 2).
Qiniq’s model is rooted firmly in the belief that every community should be treated equally, regardless of population size or geographic location and that residents in Nunavut’s communities should have affordable access to broadband services. Nunavummiut were so eager for Internet that the new network exceeded Industry Canada’s five-year projection of subscribers in the first seven months! Today, Qiniq continues to grow and serve thousands of customers throughout the territory.
Technology behind Qiniq
All broadband networks require a “backbone” in order to connect users to the global Internet. In southern Canada, this consists primarily of thousands of kilometres of fibre optic cables. The Qiniq backbone uses satellites (provided by Telesat) to connect Nunavut communities to SSi’s teleport and data centre in Ottawa, which in turn connects to the fibre lines mentioned above. At first, only one satellite was used. But in 2013, Qiniq connected to a second satellite to provide backup and increased capacity in the nine largest communities in Nunavut. (Figure 3). With both of these satellites reaching their maximum transmission ability, SSi has leased capacity on Telesat’s newest satellite, which was launched in July, 2018, and will be operational this fall.
In the communities, “last mile” connectivity is delivered with wireless technology, connecting customer devices to SSi’s antennas on towers and rooftops. The data is carried to a communications gateway, which in turn is linked to a satellite (Figure 4). This wireless platform provides a significant advantage. Customer devices are portable and non-invasive, easy to install and use, with no external cabling or antennas required. Customers can take their Internet connectivity with them to other locations in town or to any of the 25 Nunavut communities on the Qiniq network.
By 2017, every community was upgraded to 4G-LTE and 2G-GSM technology, enabling state-of-the-art SIM card-activated Internet devices and paving the way for mobile voice and data, HD videoconferencing, and telemetry solutions such as remote-monitoring security and smart metering systems.
In 2018, SSi launched its new voice and data phone service, SSi Mobile, on the Qiniq network in Nunavut. For 16 of the 25 communities, this meant receiving cell phone service for the first time ever. Service plans are comparable to those in the south, starting at $25/month for a basic talk and text plan. As part of this Nunavut-wide launch, SSi Mobile eliminated long-distance charges between Nunavut communities – a highly attractive feature for Nunavut families.
Local service and technical support – A model for success
PEOPLE are the most important element to Qiniq’s success. Qiniq is committed to local capacity building by providing training and creating sustainable jobs. For example, every Qiniq community has a local community service provider (CSP), most of whom are Inuit, who work as commissioned contractors to sign up accounts, process monthly payments, and provide technical support to customers (Figure 5). Outside of Iqaluit and the regional centres, most Nunavut communities lack banks and banking services. As such, many customers do not have their own credit cards and transactions are done primarily with cash. The CSPs provide special support to cash customers by processing their monthly fees using their own personal credit cards, which they pay off with the cash at the local Northern Store. Without these CSPs, many Nunavut residents would simply have no access to Internet or mobile service.
CSPs and other local residents are also trained as infrastructure support agents (ISAs), learning maintenance skills and providing on-site assistance to SSi technicians as required, often following directions by phone and completing tasks that would otherwise require costly travel arrangements. This Qiniq CSP-ISA model delivers over $1 million into the Nunavut economy every year.
Qiniq is a game changer, impacting everyday life
For the past 13 years, Qiniq has been the primary broadband service provider in Nunavut. While competitors offer Internet service in a few of the larger communities, Qiniq has served all 25 communities equally since day one, and thus has contributed immensely to the lives of Nunavut residents. Nunavummiut have been using the Internet for everyday activities like online banking and shopping, accessing news and weather reports, and connecting to government and Inuit organization websites for information and services. They have been communicating with family, friends, and colleagues throughout the territory and around the world using email, social media and video conferencing applications – tools that were unheard of before 2005.
Grade-school students use the Internet for education and research purposes in class and at home. Since 2013, schools in Iqaluit, Cape Dorset and Arviat have used Qiniq for the Connected North program, accessing educational resources in southern Canada via high-definition video-conferencing. At the post-secondary level, Nunavut Arctic College students are engaged in various distance learning programs using Qiniq, and many adults are obtaining their grade 12 equivalency through the Pathway to Adult Secondary School (PASS) program offered at community learning centres, where they are provided with Qiniq modems (Figure 6).
Businesses operating in Nunavut use Qiniq to promote their goods and services online. Kivalliq Arctic Foods in Rankin Inlet, for example, processes arctic char, caribou, and musk ox, and ships these traditional foods to Nunavut communities, generating sales through their Facebook site. Over the past six years, they have hired more employees and purchased more fish and meat from local harvesters, contributing noticeably to the local economy. Kiluk Ltd. in Arviat produces fine fur and leather clothing. Much of their product is sold online to buyers across Canada, making Qiniq essential to their business success. Hotels and guest houses in many of Nunavut’s communities use Qiniq to promote their accommodations, take reservations, and provide WiFi to their guests.
Moreover, Qiniq supports the work of dozens of social and non-government organizations across the territory that rely on Internet access to carry out their work, including the important business of applying for and managing grants with funders and sponsors located elsewhere. One such organization is Ilisaqsivik in Clyde River, which promotes community holistic wellness through counseling, pre-school facilities, Inuktitut literacy, youth activities and land-based cultural and healing programs. Without Qiniq, Ilisaqsivik could not survive. Another example of a community-based organization that relies heavily on the Internet is the Arviat Film Society, which uses video to preserve Inuit culture and language, to gather knowledge from Elders, inspire youth, and communicate with people in Nunavut and beyond. Through the Qiniq network, the Arviat Film Society uses Facebook, blogs, and YouTube to share their culture and perspectives on Arctic life (Figure 7). SSi has captured many of these Qiniq stories in a series of videos that can be viewed on the Qiniq website at qiniq.com/media.
Inuit organizations, municipalities, hunter and trapper organizations, district housing offices, community learning centres, educators, and health professionals working in the widely dispersed communities of Nunavut also require reliable Internet access for administrative and communications purposes, as well as for the delivery of needed public services. The Qiniq network supports this work.
Qiniq sounds great! What’s the catch?
Despite Qiniq’s success, it is important to remember that the network operates in one of the world’s most challenging environments. In Nunavut, there are no roads connecting communities to one another or to the south and thus all communication outside a given community occurs via satellite. Earth stations are required in every community, consisting of large dish antennas and steel-structured towers, and communications gateway facilities built in customized shipping containers to hold all necessary electronic equipment. These larger items are delivered by ship in summer, limited to a four-month window when sea lanes are free of ice. All other equipment is transported on small aircraft with limited and very expensive freight capacity, minimal flight schedules, and frequent cancellations due to weather (Figures 8 and 9).
Remote-area challenges add significant cost and can affect service, given that it can take days to reach a location to fix a problem. Earth stations use diesel-generated electricity which costs considerably more than in the rest of Canada. For example, the Qulliq Energy Corporation charges businesses in Nunavut between 51 cents and $1.09 per kilowatt hour depending on the community. Toronto Hydro’s commercial rates range from 6.5 to 13.2 cents per kilowatt hour. And Manitoba’s rates are even cheaper, ranging between 6.3 and 8.9 cents per kilowatt hour. Moreover, construction expenses in Nunavut are higher than in the south, making it costlier to contract heavy equipment for moving sea cans, pouring concrete slabs, and mounting towers and utility poles. Wholesale satellite capacity is much more expensive than the cost of capacity on southern fibre networks.
These challenges and their associated costs mean that consumers in Nunavut are effectively paying considerably higher prices for Internet. The average Qiniq customer pays $80/month for 25 gigabytes of data usage at a 3Mbps download speed (Figure 10), whereas customers in southern Canada paying a similar or slightly higher monthly rate benefit from unlimited usage at speeds of 50Mbps or greater. To achieve the $80/month Qiniq plan, SSi and the federal government have co-invested $175 million in Qiniq since 2005 (Figure 11).
Government investments help pay for satellite capacity but they are not reliable or consistent, lasting approximately four years, the average length of time for consumers to use up the subsidized capacity. Further, over half of Qiniq’s communities actually operate at a loss due to their small populations. Revenue from the larger communities helps to balance this deficit and allows all residents to receive the same service at the same price.
Nunavut’s broadband future – Is there a long-term solution?
Nunavut’s broadband future is far from secure – a significant digital divide exists and is growing between the North and south. 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. For Nunavut, where Qiniq’s highest offered speed is 5Mbps, this represents a substantial challenge. The Commission announced that it would establish a five-year, $750 million fund to close connectivity gaps in Canada. While SSi applauds this initiative, the fund and the rules by which it will be governed are still in the planning stage. Questions remain, namely: what will this new policy and these future funds achieve for Nunavut, and when?
SSi has strongly advocated for the “Qimirluk” solution (“backbone” in Inuktitut), which recommends significant new co-investments by the private sector and government that focus on backbone transport into Canada’s underserved North. This backbone should be comprised of new satellites with high throughput technology in combination with terrestrial infrastructure such as microwave (towers set many kilometres apart that transmit wireless signals from one to another) and overland and undersea fibre cables where possible (Figure 12). Importantly, this backbone must be regulated, with wholesale capacity shared on a fair and equitable basis with all service providers. As well, open communication hubs (gateways) must be established in the communities to provide access to the backbone, with space to collocate equipment both inside the hubs and on towers. Open access reduces costs for everyone, and consumers would benefit from innovative, competitive, and more affordable fixed and mobile services.
In 2017 SSi proposed the Qimirluk solution to the federal Connect to Innovate program, building on the $175 million of investment already made by SSi and the federal government into the Qiniq network since 2005. If funded, SSi’s proposal would have leveraged the advantages of SSi’s newly installed 4G-LTE and 2G-GSM infrastructure throughout the territory. Although SSi’s proposal was supported widely in Nunavut by institutions, businesses and consumers, another company was awarded $50 million for subsidized satellite capacity. That same company now plans to build new earth stations and 4G-LTE, effectively duplicating rather than sharing SSi’s existing infrastructure. Fortunately, the Connect to Innovate funding criteria requires that the backbone capacity purchased with the $50 million federal investment must be made available fairly and equitably to all service providers, including SSi. This is vital for Qiniq customers, who rely on subsidized capacity for an affordable $80/month Internet service. Without it, their monthly rates would increase considerably.
So, what lies ahead for Nunavut? The latest federal funding program will provide some temporary relief to Canada’s Arctic connectivity problem, but the new capacity it generates will be consumed in a few short years. A long-term solution will require much more capacity. For now, one of the possible sources of future investment is the CRTC’s proposed $750 million broadband fund, although it is still in development, with no funding rules yet in place.
Recent roundtables on Northern broadband led by CanNor, the Nunavut Economic Forum, and the Nunavut Government as well as several Nunavut municipalities are promising, but key stakeholders, including governments, service providers, and user groups, must continue to work together to close the digital divide. As discussions and developments in this important area continue, SSi remains a passionate voice for consumers, committed to affordable and equitable broadband for all Northerners. ◉
David Veniot is the Manager of Communications for SSi Micro. Previously, he managed communications for the Nunavut Broadband Development Corporation, and from 2001 to 2005 he was the Director of Client Services for Inuit-owned Ayaya Marketing and Communications in Iqaluit.