The federal government has promised to contribute nearly $50-million to bring high-speed Internet to Nunavut where some of the poorest and most expensive service in Canada has long been considered an economic drag.
The money, together with $73-million from regional service provider Northwestel, will put satellite dishes and ground stations in all 25 Nunavut communities, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains said Thursday in Iqaluit.
"We're moving from megabytes to gigabytes."
Everyone from local users to federal committee members has long identified poor Internet as a major barrier to northern development.
Current Internet speeds in Nunavut are, at best, about three megabytes per second – enough to transmit just one medium-sized picture.
Earlier this year, a report to then-Indigenous and northern affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett found Internet access to be a greater concern among northerners than environmental conservation. The drag poor Internet access has had on Arctic development has been pointed out in studies dating back to 2011.
Mining companies have had to courier documents to northern regulators because Internet connections couldn't handle the file sizes. An Iqaluit band that recorded a music video to accompany its latest release found it couldn't be uploaded.
The new satellite dishes are expected to provide speeds of between five and 15 megabytes per second. Broadband capacity is expected to increase by 20 times.
The dishes will be built over a three-year period, said Northwestel vice-president Curtis Shaw. The first communities are to be hooked up by early next year.
All satellites will be open access for other providers, he said.
The new dishes are expected to open a broad range of possibilities for northerners, said Shaw.
"You think about a school having video-conferencing in the school, having distance education, a field trip to a museum.
"From a health-care standpoint, you can now start sending results and use the Internet for diagnostic tools. For an elder, it could mean not travelling out of the community for service."
Shaw said costs are also expected to come down.
"We're expecting costs will drop to the end user."
Actual Arctic Internet users were dubious about Thursday's announcement. Several pointed out on Twitter that five megabytes per second is still slow.
"That's the CRTC's minimum requirement from about six years ago," tweeted someone under the name of Ryan Oliver.
Another said that by the time the satellite dishes are in place, increased demand will eat up any gains in speed.
"Satellite is pointless," tweeted someone under the name of Kyle Sheppard.
Bains said the government remains committed to a fibre-optic link for northern communities.
"We continue to look at that option and other options as well. We felt this was an important step in the short term to be able to use new satellite technology to provided that backbone infrastructure."
Bains said the project fulfils a government promise.
"It's about equality of opportunity. We want people to have the tools they need to succeed."
Many northerners are heavy Internet users. Social media such as Facebook helps connect with relatives and friends in distant communities where travel is expensive. Such services are also widely used to trade items such as country foods.