Stephen Hawking once said, “We are all now connected by the internet, like neurons in a giant brain.”
What he failed to mention is that some of those neurons would be more connected than others and that those on the shallow-end of the connectivity dream-pool would be left at a substantial social, educational and commercial disadvantage.
Last week we reported that Northwestel was providing new services to Fort Smith and Norman Wells. Northwestel said the services would provide at least 25 per cent faster internet than what was previously available in the communities. The new packages also come with an additional 100 GB of data.
While Northwestel is providing a new service, the fact remains that the internet in Northern Canada is slow and expensive. There are many reasons for this: a lack of competition, the high cost of infrastructure and a scarcity of customers that leaves little incentive for companies to provide service.
As the rest of the world comes to rely more heavily on a reliable web connection, Northerners are being left on the wrong side of the digital divide.
In most other parts of the country, consumers have a lot of choice when it comes to internet service providers, including Bell, Rogers, Telus and a number of other smaller companies.
Here in the NWT consumers can choose between SSi Micro and Northwestel.
Northwestel is the sole owner of the only fibre-optic network that serves the NWT, so it enjoys a near monopoly. It has been in no rush to change that.
Other service providers must pay Northwestel for the use of their fibre optic network if they want to sell internet. This has not been a favourable situation for consumers.
It has fallen to regulatory bodies and governments to ensure that Northerners are getting internet at a fair price.
In 2016, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) ordered Northwestel to adjust its prices so that other competitors could get in the game.
Last year, the federal government gave Northwestel $4.6 million to expand the territory's fiber-optic network and fund cheaper service for communities that need to rely on satellites for their connections.
These are welcome efforts but the fact remains that southern companies are offering better service for less money.
Citizens have been grumbling about this for some time. In fact, last year Hay River resident Mark Lundbek launched a petition to protest what called Northwestel's poor service and high prices. He gathered hundreds of signatures.
Living in the North means that many services – such as internet – are a bit more expensive than in the provinces.
But more competition, further investment and newer regulations from the CRTC will be essential if we want to prevent the digital divide to grow into a chasm.
Fast internet service is crucial to the modern economy. Faster and cheaper service will be an important step toward shrinking the persistent gaps in economic opportunity, educational achievement and health outcomes in the North.