Slow, unreliable and pricey: CRTC gets earful about northern internet
CRTC is holding hearings in Whitehorse through the week
Slow and spotty connections, prolonged outages, high prices and few options for service providers.
Those were some problems with northern internet that intervenors expressed to the Canadian telecommunications regulator at a hearing Monday on telecommunications in the North.
"It's mostly the Indigenous people who don't have [internet] services," Brenda Norris, who directs an Indigenous family internet initiative for the Native Women's Association of the NWT, told the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).
"There's a certain unfairness in the fact that these communities are at least 15 years behind everyone else."
The CRTC is holding hearings in Whitehorse through the week, exploring ways to improve internet and phone services in Northern Canada.
The commission will look at, among other things, the creation of a subsidy to make the internet more affordable in the North, automatic refunds for internet outages, and how service providers engage with Indigenous communities.
"We know that everyone in Canada needs fast, affordable and reliable access to telecommunications services to participate fully in today's economy and society," CRTC chairperson and CEO Vicky Eatrides said in her opening remarks.
"One of the objectives of our proceeding is to find solutions to make Internet service in the Far North more affordable and more reliable."
Several people testified that Indigenous communities are hamstrung — economically and socially — by slow and unreliable internet connections and high prices.
It's one reason why, Norris said, internet should be provided to Indigenous families for free.
"We've taken so much from the Northwest Territories with all the resources, residential schools, you name it," she said.
"There's so much that we could do with an Internet connection," she continued. "They would take the Internet in their communities and they would make something of it., and it is the least that we can do to give it to them."
N.W.T. gov't recommends subsidies
N.W.T. deputy finance minister William MacKay told the CRTC that price is the main reason why households in smaller communities don't have internet.
"This especially applies in the case of Indigenous households that have a low Internet take up rate of only 63 per cent, compared to 94 per cent for other households," he said.
MacKay recommended the CRTC establish two subsidies to make northern internet more affordable: one directly aimed at low-income households, and one for internet service providers (ISPs), so they could lower their prices for all northern customers.
Jason Neepin, executive director for Broadband Communications North, which is owned by seven tribal councils in Manitoba, said before any discussion of subsidies, the CRTC should focus on improving connectivity.
"When you say a subsidy is necessary, some of our customers can't even connect to the internet. It doesn't exist," he said. "So we need more connectivity to even talk about subsidies in some of our communities. It's a big challenge."
Leanne Goose is a researcher with digital literacy organization DigitalNWT. She said limited bandwidth in smaller Northwest Territories communities prevents online access to essential services, like banking, school and mental health counselling.
"I know families with children in school and employees at local organizations who are expected to learn and work online, but cannot due to the limited internet connectivity or low speeds or sometimes no reliable Internet connection at all," she said.
Goose spoke about Northwestel's dominance over the North's internet market, and said the company's customer service must be improved.
For starters, she said, customer service should be available in Indigenous languages, and the company should make it easier for people to monitor their usage and avoid high overage fees.
'Competition is possible'
Bill Murdoch is the chair of the First Mile Connectivity Consortium, a national not-for-profit made up of First Nations internet service providers. He said the CRTC needs to address barriers that block smaller and Indigenous providers from competing in the Northern internet market.
"We have demonstrated that competition is possible in the far North and small Indigenous ISPs can provide local broadband services at lower prices, and with better technical support, than are available from Northwestel," he said.
Murdoch added that local providers would hire locally, and could also attend to outages quickly because they would live in or near the communities they're serving.
Northwestel will testify before the CRTC on Friday. The company declined to comment on the criticisms voiced at the hearings ahead of its testimony.
In an emailed statement, Northwestel spokesperson Andrew Anderson said "in the last three years Northwestel has brought access to unlimited Internet with speeds up to 500 Mbps to over 26,000 northern homes.
"We look forward to sharing our perspective on how to continue to improve Internet infrastructure in the North," he wrote.
The CRTC's hearings in Whitehorse continue until Friday.