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This map cropped to Northern Canada depicts broadband Internet coverage. https://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/139.nsf/eng/h_00002.html

My slings and arrows aimed at the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission last week opened a can of fibre optic worms. As expected, the high costs of our Internet can be traced to the CRTC, which has historically let Northerners down, if not all rural Canadians.

When Covid-19 hit and schools closed, the obvious option was the first one the schools and territorial education departments turned to – online education.

The problem is not all homes have enough computers and enough Internet access to handle a distance education load on top of normal web use.

Kirby Marshall’s company Global Storm IT specializes in managing and installing networks, hardware and software. NNSL Media recently did a story on the company, go here. I asked Marshall how many laptops he could get his hands on. The global supply chain is broken, he said, so we won’t get as much as we would like.

Asked about weak Internet in the communities, Marshall, raised in Fort Smith, Fort Providence and Yellowknife, said Global Storm could set up a high-speed network in any NWT community in about a day. He estimated a $50,000 installation cost (give or take), $5,000 monthly for maintenance and bandwidth from the satellite service. The bandwidth would be managed so the only use could be for education, school curriculum. 

Next, I spoke with Aaron Jaque of CasCom Remote Communication & IT Solutions. Jaque was born and raised in Fort Smith. CasCom recently bought Northern Communications and Navigation Systems Ltd. and does remote satellite communications for exploration and mine sites. Jaque said such a high-speed wireless system would be routine to install. Aside from two different specific needs, a community was no different than a mine site in terms of putting in Internet.

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SSi Micro is, like Global Storm and CasCom, a Northern business success story, only bigger, born in Fort Providence along with its founder and CEO, Jeff Philipp. Stefanie Philipp is SSi’s CFO and they’ve been married 31 years. You can read their remarkable story here.

After a two-hour phone call with Jeff Philipp, my head was spinning with 40 years of SSi history fighting competitors, governments and regulators, winning some and losing some, culminating with SSi as a multi-million dollar tech company delivering internet and mobile services across Canada (including all 25 Nunavut communities) and overseas. Philipp says internet service has been bungled in the North by both the CRTC and Northwestel, by which he means Bell. There’s a better way, he insists. 

About the same time, Tom Zubko contacted me. He’s owner of New North Networks in Inuvik. Meet him here. The airport is named after his father – Mike Zubko Airport. Here’s what Zubko told me his company can provide the people of Inuvik: 

I offer a package of 1 terabyte download for $178. The Northwestel cost for a Terabyte in Yellowknife (with overages) would have cost $990.

Zubko is not a fan of either Bell Canada/Northwestel or the CRTC.

So there’s the can of fiber optic worms. Hard to understand why Northerners pay so much more for an essential service or what the solution to the present crisis should be. We are at war with COVID and communication is key to keeping social distancing, families talking, children learning, government running, and rebuilding our economy. The companies mentioned here should be included in the conversation, not left out. They are a valuable territorial technical resource.

Time for me to reach out to Northwestel, a company serving three masters – Bell Canada, CRTC and Northern web users. The big question is will the overage charges go back on. And it would be nice to hear from the CRTC head Ian Scott to find out what he’s going to do to fix this mess.

In the meantime, Northerners who give a damn about the cost and efficiency of Northern Internet service should make the tiniest effort to go sign the online petition started by Melaw Nakehk’o at change.org. Just over a thousand people have signed up which is not enough. Remember the part of the CRTC mandate that applies to us: 

Connect. These activities (regulating Internet, phone, TV, radio) are aimed at ensuring Canadians can connect to quality and innovative communication services at affordable prices.

If you are not happy with your monthly Internet bills, signing the petition is one thing you can do. Get busy people. Make your kids do it if you have them. They have the time and it would be good for them to know each gig they gulp over the limit is worth $1.50 of their allowance.

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