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An Ice Wireless field engineer works on Iqaliut’s 3G wireless network. Although still slower than the 4G speeds available in some of Canada’s largest cities, the new technology finally makes a host of new hardware, including late-model iPhones, fully usable in the region.

Cameron Zubko/Ice Wireless

This is part of a series looking at infrastructure projects designed to create economic opportunities in the North.

In Nunavut, some residents have found that it takes less time and money to download large files off the Internet by airmail.

Chris Kalluk, who works for Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated, the Inuit cultural and economic organization in Cambridge Bay illustrates the relative sluggishness of northern Internet connections.

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Instead of auto-updating its corporate software via the Web, Mr. Kalluk and his team have rented a server in Edmonton. After downloading the software there, a colleague puts the files on a USB key and mails it to Cambridge Bay.

Nunavut, like many remote Canadian territories and communities, receives considerably slower, more expensive and more limited Internet services than the rest of the country. The situation is the result of a perfect storm of circumstances, including Nunavut's remote location, its tiny consumer base and a lack of cable infrastructure.

Even as Internet access becomes a more vital economic and educational resource, there are few signs that northern communities are going to see any of those factors change soon.

"From a telecomunications standpoint, it is the most serious problem we face," says John Graham, the mayor of Iqaluit, Nunavut's most populous city with 6,699 people.

And while Nunavut appears to have some of the worst Internet speeds and price points, the territory's situation is not an overly extreme illustration of the challenges facing many of Canada's northern communities as they try to join the rest of the country in the digital revolution.

But for the first time in years, there are signs of progress in bringing fast, if not yet fully affordable, telecommunications technology to Nunavut and other parts of Canada's North.

In August, Arctic Fibre, a massive fibre cable project, confirmed the feasibility of laying a cable in Canada's Arctic waters as part of a plan to build a 15,700-kilometre fibre optic network through the Northwest Passage between London and Tokyo. According to the project's engineers, the cable could be connected to seven landing points throughout Nunavut, offering broadband Internet to more than half of the territory's population.

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The prospect of fibre-delivered Internet in Nunavut is still a distant one. Even with government support and no unforeseen technical glitches, construction is not set to begin until 2015. Still, the project and others like it represent, at least, immense promise.

"The potential return on investment for Canadian northern governance, scientific research, economic development, health care, education, emergency response and national security is substantial, and cannot be matched," Arctic Fibre CEO Douglas Cunningham said.

In November, the region saw another important development, as Iqaluit's first 3G wireless network went online. Although still slower than the 4G speeds available in some of Canada's largest cities, the new technology finally makes a host of new hardware, including late-model iPhones, fully usable in the region.

Ice Wireless, a northern telecommunications carrier, launched the service "to bring 21st century wireless phones to a community that deserves more than being treated as an afterthought," Samer Bishay, the company's CEO, said.

But perhaps the most expansive attempt to modernize digital telecommuncations in Canada's North is the multi-year, $233-million plan launched early this year by NorthwesTel Inc., the carrier that for years had a relative monopoly on providing much of that communication.

Over the past year, NorthwesTel has spent roughly $44-million on upgrading the often-aging infrastructure across many northern communities. Today, the fruits of that labour are starting to show. In late November, the carrier announced that Fort Nelson, in northeast British Columbia, would be the first community in NorthwesTel's operating area to receive 100-megabit-per-second Internet connections, or roughly twice as fast as the fastest speeds currently available almost anywhere in the North.

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There are a number of factors that make reliable, inexpensive, high-speed Internet extremely rare in many parts of the North.

For example, as a result of the weather and geographic remoteness, little physical infrastructure exists for providing broadband Internet, such as fibre optic lines. In addition, low population density makes many communities less cost effective for companies looking to provide such services.

"If you think of all of Nunavut, it's around 30,000 people," Paul Flaherty, president and CEO of NorthwesTel, said in an interview earlier this year. "Ottawa alone is probably a couple of million – that's quite a different marketplace in terms of density. Nunavut is two-million square kilometres, Ontario is half the geographic size."

As such, a considerable portion of Internet access in Nunavut is delivered via satellite. The technology has some advantages for remote communities, including the ability to provide Internet access almost anywhere in the massive territory. But the downside is price. Even the most basic satellite-based plans can be extremely expensive. And even at the high end, the speeds are significantly slower than those available elsewhere in the country.

Earlier this year, for example, the Nunavut Internet provider Qiniq introduced a new, high-end plan called ATII Pro. The package offers download speeds of up to 2.5 megabits per second, and the company will begin to limit a user's speed after consuming 30 gigabytes a month. For the company's highest-end plan, Nunavut residents are charged about $370 a month, and non-residents are charged $925.

At the same time, appetite for Internet access across the North has skyrocketed. The report notes that in Nunavut, federal managers designed a subsidy for the Qiniq network in 2005 based on the assumption that the company would rack up 2,000 users over the course of the next nine years. The network hit that number in just nine months.

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