North

Federal delays could smother Inuvik's fledgling satellite industry, says telecom prez

Tom Zubko, president of Inuvik's New North Networks, says millions of dollars in investment in Inuvik, not to mention future investment, are in jeopardy if the federal government does not pick up its pace.

Six new satellite antennae are ready for service in Inuvik, but delays in licensing could kill the project

Tom Zubko, who owns the company that maintains and operates the receiving station, said the industry keeps six people on the payroll in a city that has seen little economic activity since energy exploration ended. Construction would add more jobs, he said. (David Thurton/CBC)

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  • This story has been updated with comment from the federal government.

Six new satellite dishes sit unused in Inuvik. Tom Zubko, president of New North Networks, estimates that two clients spent upward of $10 million to have them installed.

They have been ready to go into service since October last year, but Zubko said slow progress on a federal licence to transmit data may kill the project.

The clients — Kongsberg Satellite Services and Planet Labs Inc. — are thinking of abandoning their investment, Zubko said.

"We're a year out and they're still looking for some kind of an assurance [from the federal government] that they can get a licence and a timeline to get it. The real problem is, the clients are now looking at Alaska as a better place to do business, even though they have made this investment here," Zubko said.

Zubko said Inuvik has great potential for this kind of high-tech investment, but only if proponents can get their projects licensed in a timely matter.

New North Networks was contracted to build the basic infrastructure for the equipment, which the two satellite companies then installed. Zubko said his company also has a contract to provide care and maintenance of the new equipment.

Part of the delay in federal licensing, Zubko said, is that Global Affairs Canada became part of the licence application process thanks to the type of data the companies want to transmit. Both Kongsberg Satellite Services and Planet Labs deal with topographical and high resolution mapping, or "Earth observation," services.

The federal government confirmed that communication with a foreign satellite could extend the licensing process.

"[Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada] strives to evaluate all fixed earth station applications and respond to the applicant within seven weeks of receipt of a complete application," a department spokesperson said.

"However if coordination is required or the earth station communicates with a foreign satellite, additional processes are required and the issuance of the license may take longer."

But Zubko said regardless of the type of data being transmitted — or the satellites involved — this kind of project would have had a smoother ride in Alaska.

A growing industry for the North

Satellite installations and their maintenance are a growing industry, and Inuvik is ideally placed to be a kind of hub for satellite dish installations, Zubko said, adding that he knows of a project for 12 more dishes to be installed in the near future.
Planet Labs builds cube or miniature satellites that are about the size of a microwave. Thousands of satellites could be launched into space in the coming years, Zubko says, and Inuvik is ideally placed geographically to become a commercial hub for satellite antennae. (David Thurton/CBC)

There could be a hundred such installations in Inuvik within 10 years, Zubko said, but having a project abandoned could send the wrong message about the readiness of Canada's North for that kind of investment.

"It's a problem for anyone else wanting to come in here and do business. It really puts a damper on the entire business plan for doing these kinds of installations in Inuvik, or anywhere else in Canada, for that matter," Zubko said.

"The greatest cost we're facing here is for the town of Inuvik and for the N.W.T., because Canada is becoming known as a place not to try and do this kind of business. We have a huge potential here but it's being dampened by the unresponsiveness of the federal government."

Zubko described the industry as moving away from being dominated by government-financed projects.These installations are driven by the same kind of venture capital that drives Silicon Valley and other hi-tech centres.

"There are plans to launch literally thousands of satellites in the next few years," Zubko said. "Every time you put a satellite up, you have to download the data from it.

"Inuvik is in a very good position for it."

Inuvik's proximity to the low polar orbits many of these satellites are expected to travel, as well as its substantial infrastructure and easy access by road, make it a natural place to build a satellite station. The closer a satellite dish is to the North Pole, the more frequently data can be transmitted from an a satellite in a polar orbit, making for more up-to-date data. 
Inuvik is ideally located to become a hub for satellite stations, Zubko said. (PrioraNet Canada)

But an abandoned project would cast Canada in a bad light as far as international investors are concerned, Zubko said.

"It would put a big black mark on... Canada, and in particular, Inuvik [for] business in that field."

Inuvik has been trying to rebrand itself following the collapse of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline project. The growing satellite industry could be just the thing Inuvik needs, Zubko said.

"Any kind of an economy would be a good thing for Inuvik."

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