Slow, unreliable and expensive: CRTC takes notice of the Internet in the north

Slow and erratic connections, prolonged outages, high prices, and few service provider options.

These were some of the problems with the Internet in the North, which interveners raised with Canada’s telecoms regulator at a hearing Monday on telecoms in the North.

“It’s mostly the indigenous people who don’t have that [internet] services,” Brenda Norris, who leads an Indigenous families internet initiative for NWT’s Native Women’s Association, told the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

“There is a certain unfairness in these communities lagging behind everyone else by at least 15 years.”

The CRTC is holding hearings in Whitehorse throughout the week to explore ways to improve Internet and phone service in northern Canada.

Among other things, the commission will look at creating a subsidy to make internet more affordable in the north, automatic refunds for internet outages and how service providers work with indigenous communities.

“We know that everyone in Canada needs fast, affordable and reliable access to telecommunications services to fully participate in today’s economy and society,” said Vicky Eatrides, Chair and CEO of the CRTC, in her opening remarks.

“One of the goals of our process is to find solutions to make Internet service more affordable and reliable in the far north.”

“It’s mainly the indigenous people who don’t have it [internet] services,” Brenda Norris, who leads a web initiative for Indigenous families for NWT’s Native Women’s Association, told the CRTC. (Priscilla Hwang/CBC)

Several people testified that indigenous communities are paralyzed – economically and socially – by slow and unreliable internet connections and high prices.

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That’s one of the reasons why, according to Norris, indigenous families should be given free internet access.

“We took so much out of the Northwest Territories with all the resources, residential schools, you name it,” she said.

“There’s so much we could do with an internet connection,” she continued. “They would take the internet into their communities and make something of it. And it’s the least we can do to give it to them.”

NWT gov’t recommends subsidies

NWT Deputy Treasury Secretary William MacKay told the CRTC that price is the main reason households in smaller communities don’t have internet.

“This is especially true for Indigenous households, which have a low internet usage rate of just 63 percent, compared to 94 percent for other households,” he said.

MacKay recommended that the CRTC establish two subsidies to make Internet more affordable in the North: one directly to low-income households and one to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) so they could lower their prices for all Northern customers.

Jason Neepin, executive director of Broadband Communications North, which owns seven Manitoba tribal councils, said the CRTC should focus on improving connectivity before discussing any subsidies.

“When you say that a subsidy is necessary, some of our customers cannot even connect to the internet. It doesn’t exist,” he said. “So we need more connectivity to even talk about subsidies in some of our communities. That is a big challenge.”

Leanne Goose is a researcher at DigitalNWT. She said limited bandwidth in smaller NWT communities prevents online access to essential services. (Submitted by Leanne Goose)

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Leanne Goose is a researcher at DigitalNWT, a digital education organization. She said limited bandwidth in smaller Northwest Territories communities prevents online access to essential services like banking, school and mental health counseling.

“I know families with children at school and staff from local organizations who are expected to learn and work online but are unable to do so due to limited internet connection or low speed or sometimes no reliable internet connection at all,” she said.

Goose spoke about Northwestel’s dominance of the North’s Internet market and said the company’s customer service needs to be improved.

For starters, she said customer service should be available in indigenous languages, and the company should make it easier for people to monitor their usage and avoid hefty overage fees.

“Competition is possible”

Bill Murdoch is the Chair of the First Mile Connectivity Consortium, a national non-profit organization made up of First Nations Internet Service Providers. He said the CRTC must address barriers that prevent smaller and domestic providers from competing in the northern internet market.

“We have shown that competition is possible in the far north and that small indigenous ISPs can offer local broadband services at lower prices and with better technical support than what is available from Northwestel,” he said.

Murdoch added that local providers would hire locally and could also quickly deal with outages because they live in or near the communities they serve.

Northwestel will testify before the CRTC on Friday. The company declined to comment on the criticisms leveled at the hearings prior to his testimony.

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In an emailed statement, Northwestel spokesman Andrew Anderson said: “Over the past three years, Northwestel has brought over 26,000 homes in the North access to unlimited internet at speeds of up to 500Mbps.

“We look forward to sharing our perspective on how to further improve internet infrastructure in the North,” he wrote.

The CRTC hearings in Whitehorse continue until Friday.