Published by the Centre for the North, the report Mapping the Long-Term Options for Canada's North: Telecommunications and Broadband Connectivity provides a timely and comprehensive overview of the challenges, and recommendations to support the long-term telecommunications approach that Northern communities need.
"Connectivity is one of the linchpin issues that cut across multiple sectors of Northern development and policy-making," said Anja Jeffrey, Director, Centre for the North. "Aboriginal community development, Arctic security, resource development and social outcomes all depend in some way on a sustainable, reliable and affordable system of telecommunications and broadband connectivity."
An average Northern Canadian consumer pays $139 per month for basic cell phone plan, a home phone and high-speed Internet access. By comparison, an average consumer in Nunavut pays $171 per month for a similar basket of services.
The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission target for residential Internet download speeds continues to elude of the North, especially in Aboriginal communities.
Almost half of Aboriginal communities in the Conference Board's Northern connectivity profile depend on satellites, compared to 18 per cent for non-Aboriginal settlements. This reality raises affordability issues for communities.
Five major lessons emerge from the research:
Next-generation networks and new media introduce threats and opportunities for stakeholders in the Northern connectivity landscape.
Canada's regulatory framework and basic service objectives for Northern telecommunications must adapt to the challenges of next-generation networks.
Northern stakeholders should investigate options for shared network infrastructure and shared information technology (IT) services in high-cost areas. Open-access infrastructure can help distribute the cost of deploying next-generation backhaul, and promote fair and transparent pricing.
Aboriginal participation in network development and IT services deserves encouragement and support. A "one-size-fits-all" approach to Aboriginal inclusion is insufficient and may be counterproductive.
Telecommunications is critical Northern infrastructure around which multiple systems of governance co-exist, overlap, and potentially conflict. Stakeholders must work together to ensure that mutual development goals, common objectives, and network efficiencies are achievable despite differences in local policies, cultures, and business approaches.
The report benchmarks the high costs that residents pay for personal telecommunications and high-speed Internet services across Canada's North. It also uses hypothetical cases to describe some of the diverse challenges facing Northerners. There is a clear need for increased capital investment, both to build up-to-date infrastructure and to improve reliability through redundancy. This investment will have to be supported by governments.
Money alone will not suffice—the ability to maintain both infrastructure and devices also will depend on training, attracting, and retaining sufficient IT professionals and technicians. Ensuring access in high-cost regions, where many families have below-average incomes, will require relentless attention to affordability. This, in turn, will depend on careful regulation of investment decisions, service plans, and subsidy requests from service providers.
In order for Northerners to get the most out of these investments, improvements in capacity and access will need to be accompanied by more Northern and Aboriginal content and greater support for digital literacy.
The Conference Board of Canada's Centre for the North works with Aboriginal leaders, businesses, governments, communities, educational institutions, and other organizations to provide new insights into how sustainable prosperity can be achieved in the North. Over its five-year mandate, the Centre for the North will help to establish and implement strategies, policies and practices to transform that vision into reality.