The dream of connecting Canada’s north has taken a huge leap forward

The Northwest Territories (NWT), like much of Canada’s north, faces serious disparities with internet access. A 2014 government survey found that, on average, around 20% of households in NWT were without internet. But this is just the average; in communities such as Fort Providence, Nahanni Butte, or Detah, the reality is that nearly two-thirds of residents do not have internet access at home. In a country that is known for spending more time on the internet than any other nation, and which is pushing hard to become a technology giant and “silicon valley north”, having so many people live without basic telecommunications services is shocking.

Too often, when we think of improving connectivity in Canada, we think of east to west, we rarely think north to south. But all Canadians need to be connected to the internet. In a country this size, the internet is the only real way we can connect with each other.

Happily, earlier this summer, the NWT’s government took a major step forward to improving internet connectivity for its residents and businesses.

I was fortunate enough to witness the ribbon-cutting of the new Mackenzie Valley Fibre Link — one of the first fibre links to the north. This government-owned infrastructure connects McGill Lake in the south of the territory to Inuvik (a town 200 km north of the Arctic circle). This represents 1,154 km of fibre optics that, over the last two years, was painstakingly installed in one of the most remote (and frozen) landscapes in Canada.


Trenching in NWT to lay the Mackenzie Valley Fibre Link

Inuvik is a town of around 3,300 residents. This, at face value, offers little incentive for an expensive fibre build. But the town, and the government of NWT, are looking to the future, and making investments today that will ensure their economic prosperity going forward.

Several global space agencies rely on ground stations near Inuvik to gather data from their polar-orbiting satellites. These large data files need to be transmitted to research institutions around the world, a job that previously meant downloading the data onto tapes and flying them to the nearest town (in Alberta) with a reliable internet connection. With the new fibre connection in place, the space agencies will be able to transmit the data directly to researchers abroad. This strengthens the partnership between the space agencies and the NWT government.

But the biggest beneficiaries of the new fibre link could very well be the residents of the territory. Currently, there are two Internet Service Providers in Inuvik: NorthwesTel and Xplornet. On their websites, they advertise internet speeds in Inuvik of “up to” 15 mbps upload / 1 mbps download, or 5 mbps upload / 1 mbps upload. (Of course, we all know what “up to” means…) NorthwesTel caps its monthly usage at 200 GB, Xplornet at 50 GB.

At these rates, it is difficult enough to just send an email, let alone upload a video or carry out a videoconference. This relegates Inuvik residents to being nothing more than passive observers of the world, rather than active participants. And this is getting played out in rural areas across the north.

But with the new Mackenzie Valley Fibre Link — a government-owned resource! — there is the opportunity to increase the internet capabilities of Inuvik and other settlements in the territories many times over. If these towns were to put up some wireless access points, they could cover everyone’s needs with wifi.

Once the Aurora College campus in Inuvik (pictured right with myself, at midnight) is connected to the Research and Education Network, its researchers, staff and students (as well as those in the town’s public buildings) could access CyberaNet. Through us, they can then get direct internet connections to major content providers like Google and Facebook.

Going forward, the NWT government is hoping to extend the Mackenzie Valley Fibre Link to Tuktoyaktuk (roughly 100 km north of Inuvik). This creates potential access points for NWT residents all the up way to the Arctic shore — giving them the opportunity to achieve faster internet than they ever had before.

These are not just any basic utilities that are being put in place — this is nation-building infrastructure. For too long, Canadians living near the southern border have enjoyed technological advantages that could only be dreamed of in the north. A nation with such disparities is not one that can take on the challenges that a future of Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, and automation will bring. With the lighting of the Mackenzie Valley Fibre Link, we’ve taken an important step to bring all Canadians into the future.


To find out more about the issues of technology disparities in Canada, and what we can do to address them, check out the 2017 Cyber Summit: The Future is Here, It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed conference, taking place November 7-9. This two-day event in Banff, Alberta, will highlight the organizations, tools and services that are helping to close Canada’s technology gaps.