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How Northern and Rural Canadians are saying no to high-cost telecom

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While it’s no longer shocking to most that Canadians pay some of the highest prices for some of the worst cell phone service in the industrialized world, what’s often less talked about is the internal disparity in pricing and service provision between varying communities within Canada.

Residents living in rural and remote communities can face broadband Internet costs that are up to three to five times higher than in southern urban centres. To make matters worse, such high price tags buy only a fraction of the download capacity available in the south.

The result: Northern citizens are trapped in a dead-end dependency on limited provision options and the subsidy programs to which they are tied. It’s a setting where natural monopolies reign, leaving Internet users at the mercy of large conglomerates that have so far overlooked deep-rooted connectivity issues plaguing areas located far from existing ‘backbone’ broadband infrastructure.

Furthermore, certain regions, like Nunavut, have no terrestrial ‘backbone’ infrastructure at all. Internet access is bound entirely to a satellite connection. A single power malfunction, like that in October 2011 which grounded flights and cut cellular service, resulted in widespread calls for urgent government action to tackle the fragility of Nunavut’s digital connectivity.

Instead of implementing sustainable solutions, however, government has tended towards quick and inexpensive fixes. Controversial deals, such as the Connecting Communities agreement for under-served areas of northern B.C., have funded top-down proposals from Telus rather than initiatives suggested by the communities in question. Unsurprisingly, such a bare minimum response just merely scratches the surface of the problem. Prospects for Nunavut are especially grim as the territory faces an approaching expiration in 2016 of its last government-enabled subsidy system for Internet connectivity.

Leading critics, including Oana Spinu of the Nunavut Broadcast Development Corporation, agree that anxiety over what comes next for the North’s digital future cannot be staved off by yet another finite government program. It’s not enough for a community to simply be “connected”; much more vital is a connection that is sustainable (i.e. one that is not only “catching up” but looking forward) and locally-driven rather than tied to inefficient external sources.

What rural and remote communities, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, are in need of is a holistic overhaul of their telecommunications systems.

In answer to the need for better, more reliable coverage, some communities are taking it upon themselves to build their own independent broadband networks. Studies have shown that community-built broadband services can offer faster, less expensive, and more reliable access, not to mention the added bonus of control over one’s Internet.

As an example, the First Mile project, spearheaded by several First Nations groups, turns the digital infrastructure debate on its head. Telecommunications insiders tend to view successful connectivity as a matter of securing “last mile” service, an industry term referring to the last stretch telecom networks take in delivering connectivity across the “last mile” and into the home. “First mile,” conversely, is about redesigning how connectivity is made possible from the equipment that it requires onwards.

The result is privileging community input foremost, with communities deciding how to secure and maintain their digital connection without waiting to be consulted by external organizations after-the-fact. Shifting the focus to the First Mile makes sense since, as Chief Matthew Kakekaspan of Fort Severn First Nation has said, “the First Mile is the key to achieving the success that is necessary to make the last mile possible.”

This sort of innovative repositioning of users’ concerns as the priority for our collective digital future may be just the solution to overcoming broadband development challenges in under-connected and under-served regions. What’s certain is that mounting service limitations in remote and rural Canada offer a perfect opportunity for newly appointed Industry Minister James Moore to respond to citizens’ concerns. Minister Moore must listen to Northern Canadians and support them in their efforts to secure a sustainable digital future.

All Canadians deserve equitable and quality digital access - particularly those that could stand to benefit most tremendously from such an upgrade. With the help of the pro-Internet community, OpenMedia.ca has compiled an action plan for a connected Canada for you to share with your MP and community members. Demand digital policy guided by openness and accessibility for all NOW.  

 

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