Iqaluit file photo
Iqaluit file photo

Bringing Internet Service To Nunavut No Easy Task

A media release announced high-speed Internet and LTE wireless had become available in all 25 Nunavut communities last September.

But the announcement barely scratched the surface of the multi-million-dollar project that had hundreds of labourers, technicians and engineers working in a terrain that was either covered in snow and ice in winter, underwater in spring and unyielding granite during summer when daylight never ends with twilight.

From the media release: “Northwestel and Bell are using the new open-access Tamarmik Nunaliit network to deliver the new services. Operating on Telesat ka-Band satellite technology, the network provides up to 20 times more Internet capacity than previously available, making high-speed Internet and wireless service possible in each community.”

The federal department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) invested $49.9 million in September 2017 into a Northwestel-built backbone. The company, a direct subsidiary of Bell Canada, said at the time it would itself invest $73 million.

A backbone is the main network that carries all the information at high speeds, which in Nunavut is satellite-based rather than through fibre-optic cable.

At the time, Northwestel only serviced four Nunavut communities. Today, residents in Arviat, Cambridge Bay, Iqaluit and Rankin Inlet can order 15 Mbps internet service through Northwestel while those in all other Nunavut communities have access to fixed wireless Internet service through Bell. The high-speed Internet services from Northwestel and Bell are offered at the same price, offer speeds up to six times faster than what was previously available and include 100 gigabytes of data usage, according to the release.

From a cost-benefit perspective, Nunavut is the second-least populous of Canada's provinces and territories. It’s also one of the world's most remote, sparsely settled regions with a population of 35,944, mostly Inuit, spread over a land area of just under 2M km (725,018 sq mi). Nunavut’s most northern community has 24 hours of daylight in June and 24 hours of darkness in December. Southern Nunavut communities have more hours of light in the winter and more hours of dark in summer.  For example, on December 21, the shortest day of the year, residents in the capital of Iqaluit will watch the sunrise around 9:30 am. and set around 1 pm.

Winters are harsh, with average temperatures of -27°C in Iqaluit; and summers can be quite mild, with temperatures ranging from an average of 11°C in Baker Lake in July to 6°C in Hall Beach.

The project was exhausting and fraught with obstacles. For instance, six to nine months of weather make for adverse conditions for outdoor construction and maintenance, with temperatures that make metal brittle, ice towers and microwave dishes; extremely low population densities make recoupment on fixed assets such as electricity, backup power, building heat and light near impossible; and all-weather road access is only available to 55 of 93 communities in the territory, and air transport is not available in a great many of the access points.

Tower trusses, satellite dishes and heavy equipment were brought in by sea and other component parts and people were brought by air and then transported by trucks to remote communities. Crews numbering several hundred had to be housed, using hotels where and when available and billeting workers in local communities where possible. Local work crews were also employed as part of the roll-out. A lot of the work was scheduled in the summer months when there was daylight, but industrial lighting was used out of season. One of the big enemies during construction was heavy rains, and heavy rainfall can also cause service interruptions and outages.

Before work crews were deployed, teams numbering as many as 40 mapped out the logistics, technical features and workflow maps in detail. The project overall took about 18 months to execute but there was no blueprint for the complete term of the project. “If you’re going to be building for 18 months, you don’t develop a detailed plan for everything all the way through. You develop a general plan and really detailed plans for four or five months and then you are continually planning, pushing out through to the end,” a person involved in the project said at the time.

The job may be done, but it’s an ongoing exercise. With many communities relying on copper lines stung from poles, the inevitable outages due to inclement weather and even theft happen. In larger communities, satellite dishes connect them to a base station that is connected to a satellite. That simple media release makes it all sound so very simple when in fact the project was monumental, but in reality, a baby step before 5G is mandated by the federal government in the territory. 

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