COVID-19 reveals how Nunavik’s internet service is an essential service
By Stephen Hendrie
As the global coronavirus pandemic swept the globe in early 2020 forcing countries and regions within nations to go into lockdown, so did Nunavik. By the middle of March Nunavik was totally closed off to incoming and outgoing travellers.
Offices, businesses, schools, and churches shut down. Everyone was told to stay home, wash hands several times a day, stay six feet away from each other, and as things progressed, wear face masks in public buildings, such as the Co-op.
But while everybody had to stay home, work continued, school continued, people still had to go out to get food, and as for praying, that was done at least six feet away! Arguably the glue that held this together was the Internet, allowing people to work from home, and students to connect with school. The concept of “social media” was never more vital than when the pandemic descended and forced everyone into a “home cocoon.”
COVID-19 shined a spotlight on Nunavik’s internet service as being an essential service. The main service provider to the Nunavik region is Tamaani, run by the Kativik Regional Government (KRG) since 2003.
KRG is well aware that the internet capacity it currently has simply cannot keep up with demand. Internet download speeds in the south are typically 50 megabytes per second (Mbps), fast enough to stream a movie.
Makivvik’s Jean Dupuis, a Director in the President’s Department, described an app he has on his phone that measures internet speed. From Montreal he said, “Right now I’m getting 50 Megs download, which is great for anything you want to do. In Kuujjuaq, the maximum I’ve ever been able to get is 5 Megs.”
Dupuis is Makivvik’s representative on the federal Inuit Crown Partnership Committee (ICPC), bringing together Inuit leaders across Canada with key federal ministers and the prime minister. He’s on the Infrastructure Working Group which is conducting an overview of broadband services across the Arctic.
They will find out that in Nunavik, the speed bottleneck is the expensive and aging satellite network. On top of being slow there’s a delay of up to 1.5 seconds in transmission. Unless you’re a big fan of “echo,” that’s not good.
The current Tamaani network was re-designed in 2015. In 2020 it’s already old and was overwhelmed by the pandemic. It was never designed for the level of home use with students trying to connect to the school, parents trying to make Zoom calls for work, and sending files back and forth.
Tamaani did open up some bandwidth during the pandemic to make working and studying from home easier, but a solution that will put Nunavik at the same level as the rest of Canada is a few years away. Nunavik will also leapfrog a few generations of technology when it comes on-stream.
In September 2018, a joint federal-provincial investment of $125.2-million in high-speed internet was announced. It will bring high-speed fibre optic connectivity to five Nunavik communities on the Hudson Bay coast, and to Kuujjuaq on the Ungava Coast. The initial phase would see a subsea cable link up communities from Chisasibi to Puvirnituq. A microwave link, or overland fibre optic cable, would connect Kuujjuaq to Shefferville.
Éloi Clément, the KRG Assistant-Director for Tamaani Internet Service, said it’s the biggest amount for a telecommunications project in all of Canada.
“It’s a very big project, bigger than we ever had.” He was happy, but very busy, both from providing essential internet services during COVID-19 and working on this massive new project. They’ve been preparing for the link by installing fibre optic cables in Nunavik communities – the last mile.
A fibre optic link to Nunavik would certainly go a long way to satisfying the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) Universal Service Objective announced in 2016. It states that, “Canadians in urban, rural, and remote areas have access to voice and broadband internet services at 50 Mbps down and 10 Mbps up on both fixed and mobile wireless networks.”
Until then, Nunavik is stuck with about 5Mbps download speed. It affects every organization across the region, and literally slows down development in Nunavik. Thomassie Mangiok is a graphic designer and the Centre Director of the Nuvviti School in Ivujivik. “I make videos, and I struggle to upload them. I cannot compete with other people.” He said Nunavik doesn’t have much to export. “But we can produce cultural products. It’s really hard to send them, so we’re left behind.” He explained a typical five-minute video is about 800 megabytes, very difficult to send.
For his students, he would like to be able to show instructional videos from around the world, just like any school, but this is also not possible. “Another example, there are two students into flight simulator. One was identified by Air Inuit as a potential pilot. It took us a long time to download the program,” he said.
At the Nunavik Research Centre in Kuujjuaq, Director Ellen Avard said it’s common to push “send” on a document overnight to ensure it’s ready for the morning. “Fibre optics would take away all of that stress. We’d be on par with our southern colleagues.”
Gregor Gilbert, Director of Makivvik’s Environment, Wildlife, and Research Department concurred.
“We often deal with large files, such as maps. To send a large file size via any of the normal routes is pretty much impossible because of the slow speeds. So, we’ve had to resort to things like DropBox.”
Imagine what it’s like for people who are struggling with addictions. There’s only one treatment centre in Nunavik – Isuarsivik – in Kuujjuaq. Dave Forest, who is the Chair of the Board said they do a lot of aftercare using Facebook.
“With clients, we provide a platform for them to reach out. The Internet is so slow. If you’re in crisis mode, your patience gets rather thin.” Forest also operates Tivi Galleries. Like many Nunavik businesses he has internet backup in the form of a grandfathered Xplornet satellite dish. They’re no longer sold in Nunavik, but existing units still operate.
Another player is in the wings. Clément, Mangiok, and Forest all spoke about the plans billionaire inventor Elon Musk is planning with his Starlink low orbit satellite venture. The Tesla founder wants to send thousands of small low orbit satellites into space providing cheap high-speed internet to rural and remote communities around the world. Mangiok looks forward to connecting on the land. Forest said, “That’s a lot of satellites, but it would be a game changer for us.” Clément said Musk’s Low-Earth-Orbit (LEO) project is interesting, but it’s late. “It won’t be available in Nunavik for another two years.”
Fortunately, a lot of the social networks and video connection technologies that have sprung up during the pandemic have built-in features that, to a certain extent, cope with slow connections.
Makivvik’s Director of Communications Carson Tagoona explained how it’s done. “A lot of these platforms have encoding options that will vary the bitrate of the video they’re delivering.” On Zoom for example, it allows users in Nunavik to be on Zoom calls, though they might appear splotchy.
In the early days of the lockdown, important meetings were cancelled or rescheduled. Among these was the Makivvik Annual General Meeting, originally scheduled for March 23-26 in Akulivik. Makivvik held a virtual AGM in mid-July using the Webex platform by Cisco, very similar to Zoom. Makivvik President Charlie Watt, along with fellow executives, such as Treasurer George Berthe and Adamie Delisle Alaku were in the Makivvik board room in Kuujjuaq. Other participants joined from Northern Village offices around the region. Interpretation was provided by teleconference and was also available via a YouTube stream.
It’s hard to imagine virtual meetings replacing actual AGMs, All Organization Meetings, or other large gatherings critical to the political, social, and economic development in Nunavik. There’s so much more than meets the eye in weeklong meetings of this nature. Being together, arguing, laughing, crying, sharing food, and endless stories, it just can’t be replaced with laptops, tablets, and smartphones.
Over in Kangirsuk, CBC Radio Commentator Zebedee Nungak did a series on COVID-19. He admitted he’ll need to take a course like “Online Shopping 101” for all the wondrous new products he was being bombarded with on Facebook. He also said life became unnatural for Inuit who are used to visiting each other a lot.
But the final word comes from Zebedee’s commentary on the “Stopping Power” of the pandemic — a power that goes well beyond the wires, cables, and devices that keep us connected.
He said, “COVID-19 has caused human beings to fully stop, and thoroughly reassess their relationship to Earth, nature, and to each other…” Wise words indeed.