Petition calls for affordable internet in the North during pandemic

Northerner Melaw Nakehk'o started a petition recently that calls for improved internet access in the North during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A petition started by Melaw Nakehk'o has garnered more than 2,500 signatures since it launched

A Northwestel installation in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, in November 2018. A petition launched a month ago asking regulators and Northwestel, the North's largest internet provider, to waive overage fees and give unlimited data to all communities, including those served by satellite. (Karen McColl/CBC)

During the COVID-19 pandemic, internet is fundamental for socializing and participating in the economy. This has prompted a call by more than 2,500 people to fix the North's digital divide. 

Melaw Nakehk'o, a founding member of Dene Nahjo, launched the petition a month ago asking regulators and Northwestel, the North's largest internet provider, to waive overage fees and give unlimited data to all communities, including those served by satellite. Nakehk'o is asking for this to apply until July.

"My bills are going to be crazy and I was thinking of other communities that don't have the same internet service I have in Yellowknife. How are people going to work?" Nakehk'o said.

She said that as the economy and schooling shift online, many are at risk of being left behind. 

"How are people going to homeschool their kids when they have [poor] internet service and connection?"

On Monday, Northwestel announced it would waive overage fees for May and upgrade data packages in some satellite communities pending regulator approval. In the N.W.T., Northwestel waived overage fees for customers in Yellowknife, Norman Wells, and Fort Smith, and in Yukon it did the same for customers in Whitehorse and Carcross.

All of our communities should have the same quality of services across the nation.- Melaw Nakehk'o

Northwestel doubled usage caps for communities in Nunavut with satellite service. It increased caps by 50 per cent for N.W.T. communities served by satellite. It gave communities on terrestrial DSL (internet delivered through telephone lines) like Hay River, N.W.T., Watson Lake and Dawson City, Yukon, an extra 100 GB per month. 

Nakehk'o said connectivity is fundamental to northerners' mental health and safety by keeping people connected so they can stay home.

"It was really scary to think that if anybody in our communities got coronavirus, it would be so devastating," she said. "People are going to have to pay so much money to do their jobs, to work and to educate their kids, and to stay sane and connected with friends."

Nakehk'o said that from Fort Liard, N.W.T., to Toronto, everyone has the same internet needs but they don't get the same access. 

"It's 2020. We live in Canada. All of our communities should have the same quality of services across the nation. It is pretty crazy that there are households that don't even have internet in the smaller communities because it is expensive." 

Northwestel managing demand, pursuing better service

Northwestel has seen a spike in broadband activity across the North. Daytime internet traffic is up by 50 per cent since mid-March, said Andrew Anderson, spokesperson for Northwestel.

The company is working to meet that demand but has no communities exceeding their available capacity right now.

In communities with satellite service, there is a fixed amount of broadband capacity and its services are "designed to match the capacity of the satellite," he said. 

Andrew Anderson, spokesperson for Northwestel, says daytime internet traffic is up by 50 per cent since mid-March. (CBC)

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), the country's regulator, has a broadband fund to bridge the digital gap.

A map maintained by the CRTC shows how many communities lack high-capacity internet, or don't have fixed broadband access or 50 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload speeds.

In 2016, the CRTC declared broadband access a basic service, and set targets to get rural and remote communities faster and unlimited data plans. 

Northwestel applied for funding to improve broadband capacity and offer unlimited options in communities. The CRTC's announcement for those projects is delayed because of the pandemic, said CRTC spokesperson Patricia Valladao. 

Those announcements are still coming and the CRTC has extended its deadlines for a second round of applications to the broadband fund. 

Anderson said Northwestel is "hopeful those projects will move forward."

For now, the current challenge is managing their existing infrastructure to make sure it's available to residents and critical services, like health care. 

As the pandemic continues, Northwestel must continually reapply to the CRTC to change any of its rates or terms of service, Valladao said.


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