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data collection

Germany finished its satellite dish in 2009 in Inuvik, a town of 3,300 in the Northwest Territories. Germany’s space agency, DLR, hopes to develop a data-processing industry there by hiring locally to process information and partnering with a local college to help train staff.Terry Halifax

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

Germany had hoped Canada would be ready by now. In the meantime, they're helping out.

The country was among the first two to build a satellite dish, or antenna, in Inuvik, NWT. Canada opened a satellite station facility there in 2010, essentially laying the groundwork for others to build actual dishes. It was done with hope of turning Inuvik – with its far-northern location that offers ideal exposure to polar orbit paths – into a hub for "remote sensing," or satellite dishes that download data from space.

Germany finished its dish in 2009 and inaugurated it in 2010, and hoped Canada's dish would have been alongside it – to co-operate on data collection and lead efforts to hire locally, as foreign countries would be required to do. Three years later, Canada still doesn't have its dish finished.

"We actually need both antennas. Originally, we were hoping Canada would have the budget released quickly to build their own antenna next to ours already in 2009, for the number of satellites in orbit, and thereby the volume of data," said Wolfhard Geile, a representative in Ottawa for Germany's space agency, known by its acronym, DLR. "…Unfortunately, the Canadian government released the budget for their antenna only last year."

Canada's dish is due online next year. In the meantime, Canada is downloading data from centres in Saskatchewan and Quebec, as well as occasionally through Germany's dish. Canadian officials say the data is mainly scientific information – maps and photos, used by the Canadian Ice Service and other agencies.

"Currently, we're doing full-service for German and Canada, looking forward to [Canada] installing their own antenna, and then we will effectively share the capacity on both antennas between our two countries," Mr. Geile said.

Officials in the Northwest Territories, however, won't rule out welcoming clients whose satellite antennas may have military uses, and Mr. Geile declined comment on whether military information is, or will be, among the data flowing through Inuvik.

Once both are operational, Germany hopes to help spur the development of a data-processing industry in Inuvik, a remote community of 3,300. That includes hiring locally to process information, and partnering with a local college to help train staff. "That's something we have to build," he said of the local skills. The local component was part of the deal Germany signed for the right to build the dish.

"We want to offer new opportunities to the local peoples up there, and that's something we have discussed from the very beginning," Mr. Geile said. He said many northerners who leave their communities to study have no opportunity to return for work. "And that's what we want to change," he said.

One barrier remains for developing the site – connectivity. There's no high-speed Internet access, so satellite dishes can't send raw data quickly to clients. The Northwest Territories government is planning to build a fibre optic line, at a cost of up to $70-million, which it hopes will be online by 2016. This is the "biggest obstacle" to work at the satellite facility, Mr. Geile said.

Canada built the satellite facility and is building its own dish, while officials say other countries are eyeing signing on. But it's a mix of countries and one corporation running and using the two existing dishes.

One dish is owned by Sweden's space agency and the other is owned by Germany's space agency. Both are maintained by PrioraNet Canada, a joint-venture of the Swedish space agency and another company, Blackbridge, said Anders Jorle, vice-president of public affairs for the Swedish Space Corporation. Germany's dish processes data for German clients, including Canada. Sweden's dish is used by its own space agency, and that of France, Mr. Jorle said.