North

Rain shouldn't impact Nunavut's data network as badly this summer, officials say

Key upgrades to the Tamarmik Nunaliit project, which uses Ka-Band satellite technology to bring unprecedented data speeds and capacity across Nunavut, should mean the network won’t go offline as often as last summer.

GN backs up critical services on more reliable satellite frequency after rain outages

Telesat dish receivers in Iqaluit. The company recently launched a backup earth station in Hague, Sask., in addition to its one in Saskatoon. The improvement should improve the reliability of the network during rain events. (telesat.com)

Nunavut shouldn't expect the same issues with its data network this summer, after rain wreaked havoc on the territory's telecommunications for much of August last year.

Communities in Nunavut experienced several cellphone and internet blackouts in August 2019, largely because of rain in Saskatoon — which is home to the earth station that sends and receives data to the territory — although local weather in some communities also caused outages.

Overall, rain and weather issues accounted for outages in 11 of 31 days in August last year, according to documents obtained by CBC News through an Access to Information request.

But key upgrades from both Telesat and Northwestel since then should mean the Tamarmik Nunaliit project, which uses Ka-band satellite technology to bring unprecedented data speeds and capacity across Nunavut, won't go offline as often.

One of the biggest upgrades came in November with Telesat's launch of a new backup earth station in Hague, Sask.,  50 kilometres from the Saskatoon site. Upgrades to amplifiers in communities across Nunavut should also help keep the network online when it rains.

If a weather system passes over the main station in Saskatoon, the network will automatically switch over to the Hague site to keep itself operational.

We had always envisioned to install a [backup] site,- Michele Beck, Telesat's vice-president of North American sales

Although Nunavut already experienced a weather-related outage on May 20 this year, Telesat said a software glitch prevented the switch over to the backup site, causing the outage. The issue has since been fixed.

Still, Nunavummiut should expect some rain outages this summer.

"We know this is part of the reality of satellite technology, and we're never going to reduce these incidences to zero," said Andrew Anderson, Northwestel's director of communications.

"But we're confident the network is continuously better able to manage through these types of events."

Rain outages were expected, but still a bit surprising

Last summer was the first for Northwestel's Tamarmik Nunaliit project, of which $49.9 million came from the federal government to build 25 earth stations in each Nunavut community. The new network has delivered never-before-seen internet speeds and capacity in Nunavut.

But reliability, namely Ka-band's susceptibility to rain, was the trade-off compared to C-band which previously served Nunavut.

"The way the network is set up, is all 25 communities communicate to one location in the south, in Saskatoon," said Dean Wells, the government of Nunavut's Corporate Chief Information Officer.

"So last year, if they had really bad weather in that one particular location, what would happen is all 25 communities were affected here."

While having a backup site in Hague was always the plan, Telesat says time ran out while they were focused on launching the network.

"We focused originally on getting the main system up and running so we could deliver broadband connectivity into all 25 communities. We had always envisioned to install a [backup] site," said Michele Beck, Telesat's vice-president of North American sales, who said the frequency of outages caught them a bit by surprise.

"I think the demand on the network is such that there is perhaps a little less margin on the links on all of our remote sites. What we're doing is actually adding margin to the sites up north, which will improve the availability of the overall service."

Among the documents obtained by CBC News in its Access to Information request was an internal report prepared by Northwestel, outlining the total number of times the network was impacted by the weather in July 2019. The report illustrates the overall performance of the network in each community.

CBC News requested the August report from the Government of Nunavut, however the government would not disclose it citing a request for refusal from Northwestel under confidentiality concerns. The government also said the July report was provided to CBC News by mistake.

In an email, Northwestel also refused to discuss the August report, saying it did not disclose internal reports.

A Ka-band weather fade report prepared by Northwestel for the month of July 2019. The report outlines the Ka-band reliability. Northwestel refused to disclose its report for August 2019, when Nunavut communities saw weather-related data outages for 11 days that month. (Nick Murray/CBC News, via an Access to Information request)

Critical services impacted

Among the impacts last summer were some critical Government of Nunavut services, including the ability for the Qikiqtani General Hospital to send imaging down to Ottawa.

Some stores in the territory also lost their ability to process debit and credit card payments during outages.

Since then, Wells says the GN has set up a backup network on the C-band service, so critical services won't be disrupted if the Ka-band service fails.

"We were devoting a lot of our network dependability on the brand new network with the Ka-Band service," Wells said. "We've used C-band for years, it's trusted, reliable. But the capacity is not there. It's really scaled down."

Health services, financial services, motor vehicles and email service are among the services backed up this summer on C-band.

But Wells says if Ka-band fails, internet browsing won't be available, which could impact GN employees working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

About the Author

Nick Murray is a CBC reporter, based in Iqaluit since 2015. He got his start with CBC in Fredericton after graduating from St. Thomas University's journalism program. He's also worked two Olympic Games as a senior writer with CBC Sports. You can follow Nick on Twitter at @NickMurray91.

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