Work is underway to improve internet services for education bodies in the NWT and some government departments.

The GNWT will prepare a request for proposals (RFP) to improve internet services, Infrastructure Minister Diane Archie said in the legislative assembly on Friday.

However, she couldn’t give a timeline for the RFP process due to the fact she was “made aware” of the problem of bandwidth at schools just 42 minutes earlier when Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly raised the issue of low internet capacity in Yellowknife.

O’Reilly explained to the assembly that the three school boards in Yellowknife and Aurora College share an internet connection of 300 megabytes per second that is provided by the GNWT.

“That’s about equivalent to your cable modem at home. This is for four entire school organizations. This is a totally inadequate allotment,” he said. “Even without the increased distance demands of Covid-19, providing students adequate opportunity to learn and use technology is an essential part of modern education. Failure to provide needed technical infrastructure puts our students at a disadvantage compared to learners in other jurisdictions and even within communities here.”

Limited internet access puts low-income families and post-secondary students in a vulnerable position in particular, he added.

“Unless our students have access and affordable internet, education is not universal.”

Education minister concurs on problem

Education Minister R.J. Simpson agreed with O’Reilly that limited bandwidth is a territory-wide problem that affects the legislative assembly, schools and even Simpson’s own house and his constituency office.

Simpson explained that the topic of internet accessibility is discussed often among cabinet members, including with the Infrastructure minister and with other ministers of education across Canada.

“We’ve approached the federal government about the need for investments in broadband infrastructure,” he said.

Turning to the issue of students, the education minister said the Student Financial Assistance program offers a monthly technology grant of $100 to help students access funding and Aurora College students are eligible for a one-time grant to help set up internet.

Simpson also said blended learning can help mitigate the challenges of limited internet access.

“You don’t need internet for everything in schools. I think most people in here got through school without using the internet in every single class, for better or for worse, but it can be done.”

Internet access ongoing issue

The exchange on internet access comes more than two months after Northwestel announced that its unlimited fibre internet packages for residential and business customers would be available on Dec. 1, 2020 in Yellowknife, Fort Smith, Hay River and Norman Wells.

That was followed weeks later by a presentation from Northwestel president Curtis Shaw, who told a standing committee meeting that unlimited internet service at high speeds will be coming to almost all NWT communities by 2023 through fibre-to-the-home or low-earth orbit satellite connections.

But in that same month, executives of three NWT telecommunications companies told a standing committee that the GNWT needs to do more to foster competition in the telecommunications market that they said favours Northwestel.

Better competition would help NWT companies benefit from building more regional and local networks, they said.  

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