This is part of a series looking at infrastructure projects designed to create economic opportunities in the North.
They are, so far, twin sentinels – satellite stations white as snow, standing just outside Inuvik, a Northwest Territories town of 3,300 on the Mackenzie Delta beyond the Arctic Circle.
One dish is German, the other Swedish, while Canada is building a third to fill in gaps in its satellite surveillance network, which the government says is "mainly" land and ice monitoring, though territorial officials say the satellites may have military purposes.
Inuvik's satellite site opened in 2010, hailed as a way to drive further development for the northern community ideally placed to download data from satellites racing past the North Pole several times a day. The satellite site "can be expanded as opportunities arise," the federal government said at the time. And now some are.
To stoke its growth, the territory is spending $65-million to $70-million to connect Inuvik to the south with a fibre optic line, one that would bring broadband Internet access to Inuvik and allow satellite data to be transmitted far more quickly – what a German official called "near-real time."
"We know it's a huge investment for the community. It's a territory-building investment for us," NWT Finance Minister Michael Miltenberger said during a recent visit to Ottawa, where officials discussed the issue with the federal government.
Currently, the German and Swedish satellite stations can't transmit data quickly online. Instead they are forced to download it, put it on a disk and mail it out of Inuvik – "a process that no longer meets their needs," Mr. Miltenberger acknowledged. "They've all said that, which is why, to us, this line is such an obvious project that needs to get done."
The fibre optic line – as wide as a thumb – is an international opportunity in a region once known for the DEW Line, a Cold War-era defence system. Now, with fibre optic capability, the Northwest Territories would be inviting countries to build antennas, or satellite dishes, to collect a range of data, including weather patterns, mapping, ice conditions and shipping – and potentially, though "not necessarily," military information, Mr. Miltenberger said.
Germany and Sweden welcome the notion.
"We would take advantage of the line as soon as it's built," said Wolfhard Geile, a representative in Canada for the German Space Agency, DLR, adding Germany is "quite happy and surprised" at how quickly the NWT is pushing for the line to be built.
"At the moment, I would say it might be a disadvantage for Inuvik not to have that," added Anders Jorle, vice-president of public affairs for the Swedish Space Corporation. "There might be other companies, or other operations from ours, [interested in Inuvik by] this kind of infrastructure. Generally, I would say it's a good thing to have these kinds of communications in remote places."
The paths of polar-mapping satellites change throughout several orbits each day, but they always cross the North, Mr. Geile said. Therefore, northern antennas, or dishes, have the most exposure to the orbiting satellites, affording them the most time to download high-resolution images."If you're looking to have coverage that's consistent, then it's a good place to be," said Caroline Cloutier, director of Natural Resources Canada's Data Acquisition Division, which is leading the building of Canada's new dish.
The federal government says there's been other interest from the "international community," but only Germany and Sweden have signed on. The NWT suspects they won't be the last.
"We anticipate by 2020 that we'll have at least six satellite dishes there. We expect that number to double after that," Mr. Miltenberger said. "The line will give Inuvik the capacity to become probably the premiere remote sensing site in the world."
The fibre optic line would run from Fort Simpson, NWT, up the Mackenzie Valley to Inuvik and on to Tuktoyaktuk. Communities along the way would be linked in, giving them high-speed Internet access. The NWT is committed to building it alone.
Ottawa is spending $6.2-million to build its own antenna, which is scheduled to enter service next year. Currently, it gathers information at sites in Quebec and Saskatchewan, and through a deal to occasionally use Germany's Inuvik dish.
Canada appears to welcome the NWT plan. The antennae download a "quite significant" amount of information – the equivalent of 250 high-definition movies a day, Ottawa says – which would be most quickly sent through a broadband connection, Ms. Cloutier said. And environmental monitoring information is often needed quickly, such as during a flood, or when tracking ice conditions, she added.
"Getting that data across through high-speed networks is critical to meet the need for that information. So having a high-speed connectivity link to the facility would greatly increase the speed at which we can access the information coming out of it," she said.
A departmental spokeswoman said in a written statement that "broadband connectivity is essential to the long-term success of our satellite station facility," and that Canada "may" sign on as a client to use the high-speed line. Asked about military capabilities, Ms. Cloutier says Canada's antenna is "mainly" for science but data may have some "operational applications."
The territory expects each new dish at the Inuvik site would generate between $400,000 and $500,000 in fees for using the fibre optic line, which Mr. Miltenberger hopes have in place by 2016. Mr. Jorle's agency's global network of satellite dishes includes two Alaska sites, but the NWT is confident Canada could carve out a niche that the United States can't – because others fear American national security law could give the government power to seize the data, Mr. Miltenberger said.
"If the Americans thought there was a security issue, they'd be able to shut you down, take whatever needed taking," he said, adding: "In Canada, we don't have that type of legislation. We've got a much more collegial type of arrangement. And we're going to be catering to business, military and government … Their preference, by far and away, which is being demonstrated, is to do business in Canada."