By Stephen Hendrie
“It’s a game changer definitely,” said Makivvik Corporate Secretary Alicia Aragutak referring to the new Starlink internet satellite service entering the Nunavik region since the spring of 2022. The difference in speed between the old system and Starlink, or the new fibre optic network from the Kativik Regional Government is like night and day. Previous download speeds of five megabytes per second have increased to at least 50 megabytes and can go up to 250megs. Nunavik is now on par with the South.
“I mean, it’s another world,” said Alicia. “Just the efficiencies, you know, it’s basic. It’s being able to go through your emails. It’s having actual conversations with colleagues who are participating in virtual summits, presentations, panels, Zoom meetings, and board meetings.”
Originally from Umiujaq, Alicia was elected Makivvik Corporate Secretary in February 2022. Her department is responsible for Makivvik’s Information Technology (IT) services, which includes the vital internet connection to Makivvik’s offices, to the rest of Nunavik, and the rest of the world. The next Makivvik Annual General Meeting (AGM) will be held in Umiujaq in March 2023. The community was among the first in Nunavik to receive the Starlink services in the spring of 2022.
Kuujjuarapik also received it in April, and it made a big difference at the NV Kuujjuarapik office, said Secretary Treasurer Pierre Roussel. “It changed the whole way we work. We had access to things we never had. Let’s say you wanted to transfer an Excel worksheet. It used to roll, and roll, and roll. We were getting impatient. So, we would just print it and send it by fax! Now it takes no time at all. We spend less time just looking at the screen.”
In terms of economic development for the community Roussel said, “I hope it will be able to create jobs. People will be able to work from their homes, which was impossible to do.” Family life is different as well. “When you have kids at your home it was impossible for them to be on YouTube and download music and so on, and they can do that now. We see a lot less interest for television in most of he households, so I think it changed the way people spend their leisure time.”
Back in Kuujjuaq, Derek Tagoona runs a private multi-media business called Tumiit Media. He does graphic design, printing, and his business partner Sam Lagacé makes videos. Derek is also a musician and has a recording studio called Qimuk Music. All of those produce huge digital files. “We had to send files overnight. There were many instances where we were physically mailing external hard drives to clients in Montreal, back and forth. Now we’re just working off the cloud, so it has changed things drastically where it’s not a thought now,” said Derek.
Starlink bills itself as the world’s most advanced broadband internet. The company is owned by South African entrepreneur Elon Musk. It is a constellation of thousands of satellites that orbit the planet much closer to earth, about 550 km, covering the entire globe. The small dish, attached to the roof or side of the building, can withstand extreme cold, heat, hail, sleet, heavy rain, and gale force winds.
Saima Mark is the System Administrator at the Makivvik head office in Kuujjuaq. Working with the Makivvik maintenance team they used a lift to mount the dish on the wall of the Nunavik Research Centre, opposite the Makivvik office. They share the connection. “We’ve had it since mid-August, and our speeds have gone from 6meg download to 150-200meg.”
He said it has had a big effect on office work. “Our Zoom calls are not an issue anymore. We can have multiple people doing those at the same time, without affecting anyone else’s access to the Internet, or downloading files. Before, I used to ask Dan Bentley in the St. Laurent office to do an online task which would take him a minute, whereas it would take me half an hour.”
Because the dish is quite small, Saima anticipates people will take them to their cabins. “We’ve noticed that Starlink expanded the coverage areas. It used to be just focussed on the towns, but they have expanded the cells, so they are further around the communities.”
There are pros and cons with everything. With the new high-speed connection comes the same issues the global community is facing with always being connected. Alicia Aragutak is sensitive to this. “I also think there are going to be some negative impacts. I think what our children are being exposed to, you know the YouTubes, the TikToks, and they’re all in English. It’s going to have an impact on our identity. There’s not a lot of people creating content in Inuktitut.”
Derek Tagoona, who is a content creator, has thought about this as well. “I think that now that we do have access to high-speed internet, I think it is on the table of current and future content creators. If someone has the funds to create an Inuktitut cartoon, you’re no longer worried about the one or two avenues of distribution, now just like in the South, you can create your own channels. I say, ‘the highway is open, now people just have to get their cars on the road and start creating.’”
The Starlink website indicates that the rest of the Nunavik communities and the entire Canadian Arctic are now connected, several months earlier than scheduled. The Tamaani fibre optic network started operating in June 2022 in Kuujjuarapik, Umiujaq, and Puvirnituq. The network will expand starting in August 2023 to Akulivik, Ivujivik, Saluit, and Kangiqsujuaq and be available by November 2023. For Ungava Bay communities the KRG said in a statement, “a marine survey was conducted to collect data before discussions with the government can move forward to obtain necessary funding for the project.” Fiber optic from Kuujjuaq to Kawawachikamach will connect with the South. They are targeting 2024.