Critics say 24-hour internet disruption highlights lack of backup options in Canada's North – The Globe and Mail

Former Iqaluit mayor Madeleine Redfern is now chief operating officer of CanArctic Inuit Networks, a company aiming to bring fibre-optic lines to the north.Casey Lessard/The Globe and Mail
Residents of Iqaluit say a recent 24-hour internet disruption highlights the lack of reliable internet service in Canada’s northern communities, and adds urgency to calls for new backup options to secure online access for work, education and health care services.
On Aug. 3, customers of NorthwesTel, a Bell Canada subsidiary, in Nunavut’s capital lost access to the internet for more than a day, forcing some businesses to close and delaying five planes.
While NorthwesTel said that landline and cellular phone service still worked as they should, for Mayor Kenny Bell, the service disruption – which he said left many citizens without usable internet connections for more than a day – was a reminder of the vulnerabilities his citizens face, despite paying some of the highest prices in Canada for internet and cell service.
“This isn’t about loading Instagram. This is about running government, schools, businesses and accessing emergency services,” Mr. Bell said. “Just because we’re a remote community doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be connected to the rest of Canada.”
NorthwesTel maintains that the disruption was not a full “outage” and instead “a degradation in service caused by a technical error” that left phones and emergency connections intact. But Mr. Bell said the internet service was essentially unusable.
“I don’t know what NorthwesTel is talking about,” Mr. Bell said. “The city here was out. Our offices didn’t have internet, our cellphones weren’t working, everything was down.”
Mr. Bell said he sees the effects of poor connectivity on a daily basis. His staff regularly turn to radios in the case of cell outages. Unreliable internet connections to credit-card readers means going shopping without cash is a gamble. And during the pandemic, he said, internet service in Iqaluit was too poor for video-based homeschooling. With libraries closed, he was left to teach his children home-based skills instead.
Redundancy in telecommunications is the backup system that is used in case of a failure. Typically this means providing multiple pathways for internet and cell traffic, including additional physical connections to network nodes in case one link goes down.
Nunavut remains the only Canadian province or territory that does not have access to fibre-optic internet, and Iqaluit is the only capital city served only by satellites, which typically provide less bandwidth than wired internet services and are more prone to interference from weather. With incumbent NorthwesTel serving much of the city, there are currently few other options for Nunavummiut to access internet and cell services.
The calls for backup plans for rural networks have grown stronger since the Rogers outage on July 16, which left millions of Canadians without access to phone or internet service for a day.
“At the end of the day, these communities have the greatest need for broadband day services,” said Michael McNally, a University of Alberta digital technology professor and co-founder of the Alberta Rural Connectivity Consortium.
In rural Canadian communities accessed by a physical network – such as fibre-optic cables – redundancy can be provided by running the line in a loop, so that the signal can run in the opposite direction if it is cut. Where there is no loop, the line is vulnerable: In June, 15 communities in British Columbia lost internet for several hours after a beaver gnawed through a tree that fell on the only Telus fibre-optic line providing service to the area.
“Whether it’s construction, humid air, land erosion, animals that chew up the cable – that can cut off internet for whole communities,” the University of Alberta’s Mr. McNally said.
But many government programs don’t offer any financial support for adding secondary connections to improve the reliability of internet and cell service and protect against total outages, according to Reza Rajabiun, a telecommunications policy researcher and adviser to the Regional and Rural Broadband Project, a group studying equitable internet access. Mr. Rajabiun said he has called on governing bodies to take redundancy measures into greater account when awarding grants for infrastructure projects.
In the case of the Aug. 3 disruption in Nunavut, Mr. Rajabiun said that “redundancy” takes on a new meaning: ensuring that a company has strong internal management controls. “In an essential network like this, it is critical to have control processes from the management side that eliminate this kind of risk.”
In a statement to The Globe, Danielle Moriarty, spokesperson for the federal Office of the Minister of Rural Economic Development, said that the government’s funding projects do take resiliency into account when awarding funding: “Network resiliency features may include power backup, redundant fibre, redundant equipment and more,” she said.
In response to questions from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission about the issue, NorthwesTel explained that its customers are allocated a portion of bandwidth from a shared port on a router. On Aug. 3, a bandwidth limitation that should have been applied only to one customer was accidentally applied to all customers connected to the shared port, restricting bandwidth for all.
The company said it did not know how many customers were affected as it did not know how many users were attempting to use their services at this time, and redacted its estimate of people affected.
In an e-mail to The Globe, NorthwesTel spokesperson Catherine Newsome said she was not aware of this issue occurring on the network before. She said that the company had credited those customers who called in to report internet disruptions with two days’ worth of service.
To counteract outages – some of which are inevitable – experts say that building redundancy also means building competition, which typically invigorates innovation and leads to lower prices for consumers. Internet in the North remains unaffordable for most: A 2021 report commissioned by Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the legal representative of the Inuit of Nunavut, found that the average household in the province would need to spend at least $7,000 a year for the same amount of data used in an average Canadian household.
Former Iqaluit mayor Madeleine Redfern said she spends more than $6,000 annually on internet alone. She also lost service on Aug. 3.
“We already live in a place full of challenges and with a high cost of living. There is no other backup system or service that kicks in when the service goes down,” she said.
Ms. Redfern serves as chief operating officer of CanArctic Inuit Networks, a company aiming to bring fibre-optic lines to the north. Last year, the company announced its $107-million SednaLink project, which would span the 2,000 kilometres between Clarenville, N.L., and Iqaluit. The project was put on hold after it did not receive any government funding.
She said the company is now looking to submit a proposal to build a fibre-optic network for the Government of Nunavut to serve Iqaluit, Kimmirut and Kinngait, a project that is expected to be completed by 2025.
On the other side of the country, the Government of Yukon is planning to develop an 800-kilometre fibre-optic loop up the Dempster Highway to Inuvik, a city in the Northwest Territories.
But among the most transformational projects, Mr. Bell said, is the coming prospect of another satellite provider in Nunavut. Starting in the first quarter of 2023, Starlink, Elon Musk’s satellite-based internet company, is expected to extend its services to all of northern Canada.
In an e-mail, Tammy April, NorthwesTel’s vice-president of customer experience, said the company welcomes the competition, and has applied to the CRTC to introduce faster internet speeds and reduce consumer rates.
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