North·Analysis

Fast promises on slow internet in the North

Federal leaders are making more promises about delivering faster internet to rural communities — promises that have been made many times before to people in the North.

‘These are barely dial-up speeds and that’s for people who even have access,' technology analyst

'We as Inuit in the North, we pay one of the highest rates for internet for the slowest service with very few gigabytes,' says Cecile Lyall of Taloyoak, Nunavut. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

Federal leaders are making more promises about delivering faster internet to rural communities — promises that have been made many times before to people in the North.

This past week the Conservatives launched a video to accompany their campaign promise to set aside a further $200 million to support major new investments in fibre broadband infrastructure in rural and remote communities that currently lack high-speed internet.

"Access to high speed internet is key in creating jobs in rural and northern communities," Prime Minister Stephen Harper says, in the campaign video, while standing in a field on a farm.

But these are promises that have been made before. Expanding high-speed internet access in rural areas was a Harper campaign promise in the 2008 election. The stimulus budget the next year included money to expand broadband access, and once again in 2013 it was included in the speech from the throne, as well as the government's Economic Action Plan.  

Despite all these promises, for people who live in the North, the internet continues to be a source of frustration.

'Barely dial-up speeds'

"It's very slow, it's not very reliable," says Brandon LaPage, an internet user from Kuujjuaq, Quebec, "It stops all the time when you're trying to download something. Let's say you're on iTunes and you're trying to download a movie, and it's one gig, it gets to halfway and it cuts and you have to re-start it."

LaPage says it's even worse when he tries to play online games, like NHL 15. 

"You see the players skate and then he stops out of nowhere, he's on the other side already, how did that happen? It's because the internet cut off," he says. 

"Very frustrating, I want to throw my remote at the TV sometimes, it sucks."

In the hamlets in Nunavut, the situation is even worse.

"You need patience to check your email, Facebook or even messages," says Mick Appaqaq from Sanikiluaq, Nunavut, "You can't even load the first five seconds of the video because it's that slow."

The slow speeds are even more irritating when compared to the high cost of internet service.

"It's very comical because we as Inuit in the North, we pay one of the highest rates for internet for the slowest service with very few gigabytes," says Cecile Lyall of Taloyaoak, Nunavut.  

In Nunavut the average upload speeds are 0.84 Mbps, according to data compiled by Ookla net index on February 6, 2014.

"These are barely dial-up speeds and that's for people who even have access," says Carmi Levy, an independent technology analyst. "There's still all too many Canadians in Nunavut who don't have any access at all." 

'Nunavut ranks at the very bottom'

The CRTC is currently reviewing basic telecommunication services in Canada. The review could have a profound influence on the future of telecommunication in the North.

"Overall Canada isn't doing as much as it should to make sure that every last Canadian has access to high speed internet access," says Levy, "Unfortunately Nunavut ranks at the very bottom of Canada in terms of access."

Average download speeds, according to Levy, are about 13 times faster in New Brunswick (26 megabits per second) than in Nunavut (2 megabits per second). 

Internet advocates say the lack of broadband in the North has many serious implications.  

Oana Spinu, the Executive Director of the Nunavut Broadband Development Corporation, an advocacy group with a mandate to improving the territory's access to the internet, argues that access to equitable and adequate internet services is a human right.

"There are things like access to education, freedom of expression, access to information that are all part of the UN declaration on human rights," says Spinu.

"There are additional rights recognized under the UN declaration of the rights of indigenous peoples about the right to express themselves in the media, being able to participate in the political and economic rights of the state," says Spinu, "Without adequate telecommunications services, people in the North, and Inuit in particular, can't necessarily exercise all of those rights."

NDP, Liberals critical of the Conservative plan

The CBC asked the federal NDP and the Liberals about their plans to improve access to high speed internet in the North. 

"Stephen Harper and the Conservative government have had a decade to address this issue and failed to do that," says Hunter Tootoo the Liberal candidate for Nunavut.

The federal Liberals say they would focus on investment in infrastructure.

"Underinvestment in infrastructure is undermining economic growth, our prosperity and quality of life. That's why a Liberal government would nearly double federal infrastructure spending," an email from party headquarters reads.  

According to the Liberals, it will be up to local communities to decide where to spend new infrastructure money. 

"Our belief is that communities are best positioned to determine objectives for this new funding, and we will be working with provinces and territories as a reliable partner to help them to achieve these objectives."

The NDP says any plan to improve internet access needs to also take into account affordability.  

"We have been critical about the Conservative's plan from the start because it is not enough for rural communities," writes the federal NDP in an email. "We want more choices for rural Canadians, lower priced options, and the kind of speeds that are available in rural communities in other countries."

The Conservatives say their record speaks for itself.

"Our Conservative Government has made record investments in improving broadband in Nunavut," writes Nunavut's Conservative candidate Leona Aglukkaq, "This includes over $21 million through the national satellite initiative in 2009 and $35 million in 2015 to extend and enhance satellite internet service in Nunavut."

There's another month and a half left before the election, and promises are still being made about faster internet in rural communities. For some Northerners, internet speed will be a big factor when casting their vote.

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