Students in the Beaufort Delta who are cut off from the Internet just got a lifeline handed to them from New North Networks, who announced on April 24 that they have entered an agreement with Beaufort Delta Education Council (BDEC) to provide free service to connect students to their schoolwork.
Following the emergency measures imposed by the Chief Public Health Officer, all schools shut down physical classes over Spring break. The Ministry of Education has pledged to ensure all students who were supposed to graduate this year do so, but getting there presents some special challenges with a highly decentralized and remote student body.
Enter Tom Zubko, owner of New North Networks, Inuvik’s pioneers of cyberspace.
“We’re going to give them the service free of charge,” he said. “We went to them only about a week ago to suggest to them we can do this and it’s all come together in short order.
“The modems are on order and should be in the week-after-next. We’re really excited.”
Under the agreement, BDEC purchases the modems for the students in need and New North covers the connection at no additional cost.
“When New North contacted us and proposed this solution for our students who do not have access to internet, we were actually not aware that such a solution was even possible,” said BDEC assistant superintendent Devin Roberts. “We would like to thank New North for stepping up and providing this generous service to those in need.”
New North Networks have been taking the COVID-19 pandemic head-on. Zubko noted the company had started brainstorming about expanding their service to include an unlimited-bandwidth package back in January, which allowed the company to launch the new service package on April 20.
“We could see we were going to exceed our capacity on the Mackenzie Valley Fibre Optic line (MVFL), so we started to upgrade our equipment to be able to handle higher bandwidth,” he said. “This epidemic situation was starting to look like it could become a problem, so that spurred us on to move a little bit faster.
“So when things came to lock down, very shortly after that we were able to upgrade our bandwidth.”
Zubko noted he didn’t have to get permission from the Canadian Radio Telecommunication Commission to change his prices. Also, these are permanent products, not just a temporary measure.
“We’re a lot more nimble, both on the regulatory side and on the decision making side as well,” he said. “We basically came to the conclusion there wasn’t going to be much difference between offering a higher tier of download or going for unlimited, so we went for the unlimited option.”
New North was the first internet provider in the Beaufort Delta, bringing up high speed cable internet in 1996 to the area when most of the world was still using dial-up. Inuvik was one of the first, if not the first, places in the world to use broadband internet and have it fed into the community by a satellite.
Over time, the modems and the bills grew smaller, though internet remains substantially more expensive in the north.
“Bandwidth that we buy is still substantially more expensive than it would cost an Internet Service Provider (ISP) of our type in southern Canada, so there are some constraints there,” said Zubko. “But things are changing very rapidly, so some of our costs are likely to come down in terms of bandwidth availability, so we’re always watching that.”
He noted running a private utility in the shadow of bigger companies has been daunting, but not impossible.
“We experimented with a whole lot of ideas, but the only real option was NorthwesTel, which was extremely expensive — they were basically selling wholesale above retain prices, so competing was not very easy,” he said. “So we just kind of limped along with a few customers for a long, long time, but we stayed in the game.
“It’s always been challenging working in the same sandbox as a competitor that’s subsidized by the Canadian government.”
Zubko notes New North does not receive any public subsidies, grants or other relief from the government. However, the construction of the fibre optic line along the Mackenzie Valley opened new gateways to cyberspace for his business.
“The MVFL came along and everything changed. Our rates went down amazingly, to 1/100th of what they had been, so the whole game for us changed,” he said. “We were able to do internet at prices that were very competitive and we were able to give volumes of download that were unprecedented anywhere in the territories.”