09/03/2011 07:19 EDT | Updated 11/03/2011 05:12 EDT

Poor Arctic Communication A Safety, Sovereignty Risk: Study

A recent study suggests weak northern communications networks are holding back economic development and impairing efforts to enforce Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic.

"Communications ties in to safety and security. It also ties in to sovereignty," said Maj. Tom Bachelder of the Arctic Security Working Group, a government task force set up to look at ways to enhance the security and sovereignty of Canada’s North.

"The telecommunications network in the North is fragile."

The report, produced for an agency of the working group, found that Internet and communications capacity in the North is rapidly being outstripped by the demands of increasingly web-dependent bureaucrats, businesspeople and individuals. It concludes that significant public investment is required to bring networks up to speed.

"Arctic residents must have reliable, affordable communications infrastructure to engage in 21st-century opportunities," says the report. "Many communities’ long-term survival will depend on it.

"If Canada wants vibrant Arctic communities, efforts must be made to improve their attractiveness to the people who live there."

Those communications networks are already falling behind.

The government of Nunavut bought new digital cameras to produce photos for driver's licences. But the photo files were too large for local email systems and so must be loaded onto memory sticks and flown to Iqaluit for processing.

Officers at remote border posts in the Yukon are routinely unable to connect to their server and have to use satellite phones to call another border post to look up needed information.

And in 2009, an influx of government, military and media caused a near-complete crash of Iqaluit's cellphone system during annual military exercises.

Bachelder said the Internet and other northern networks have been built to accommodate the normal needs of tiny communities. But the system is starting to feel the strain.

Not only are costs much higher than in the south, service providers already have to cap customer usage. And when there's any type of surge, networks buckle under the load.

That's not only inconvenient, but potentially dangerous in an emergency situation, Bachelder suggested.

"You can't get accurate information on the current conditions.

"If there is an incident, as we saw with the recent (plane crash) in Resolute, there was a lot of information flow in and out of the community within the territorial government and it wasn't always getting to who it needed to get to. Other ways had to be found to get questions answered."

Private business is unlikely to fill the gap, the report concludes.

"Public investment is a requirement. There is simply no manner under which a small, remote, isolated market can compete in an industry characterized by constantly increasing product quality at an ever-decreasing price."

The report points out that Australia is spending $43 billion over eight years to upgrade Internet service to a minimum standard of 12 megabytes per second to its most rural and remote regions. The United States is spending $4.3 billion for rural broadband support.

"These are signs that the rest of the world is making the investments to ensure their citizens’ basic needs are met," the report says. "Very soon, social pressure will be too great for government to not act, so a clear plan in this regard will save millions in the near future."

Bachelder said the working group will continue to study the report and its recommendations. But he's already convinced of the need to act.

"If we don't get from point A to point B, the North is going to continue to slide backwards in its ability to communicate."

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

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