… for this post. I tried to explain, simply, Ihoped, to an acquaintance why getting cheap, reliable high-speed Internet service to remote areas is so difficult. I was encouraged to say more and here are some thoughts.
First, a bit of history. The way we, the whole world, “built-out” first telephone, then cable TV and then Internet systems was by laying cable ~ large, multi-pair cables from major central offices to local areas and then single pairs of wires to individual homes. The need for more and more capacity spurred the development, in the 1920s and ’30s, of devices like multiplexers to send, just for example, 10 or 20 or 50 individual signals (equivalent to a pair of wires) over a smaller, usually four-wire line.
You can, I hope, already see the first problem. Copper wire is modestly expensive and it takes time and effort to install those big cables and they can break, too, and then they need maintenance and repair. Mostly, for economical reasons, lines (telephone and power) were installed on poles, outside. Everyone always knew that it was better to bury both telephone and power lines under the streets and sidewalks, down with the sewer and water lines but it was also more expensive, especially when the road needed to be dug up to repair a fault. Anecdotally, those who were around in Eastern Canada and the North-Eastern USA in 1998 will recall the ice storm. I lived then, as I do now, in downtown Ottawa, in a condominium. My building, and everything North of us is served (telephone, power and Internet/TV cable) by underground wires. During that whole episode, which lasted for weeks while power was restored, I never lost power for even a µsecond ~ the digital clocks on various devices never even flickered ~ but I stood on my balcony and watched as the ice brought down a local power line and a dozen streets South of me went dark. But it costs a lot more to install underground lines and they still need some, albeit less, maintenance.
There is another problem with lines and cables in remote, Northern areas: in some places, Inuvik comes to mind, it is not practical to bury either water and sewer lines of cables and so above ground “utilidors” (utility corridors) are required to connect each home to e.g. the water and electrical supply. It does not mean that no maintenance is required, it is just another “cost” of providing utilities, which I would argue includes Internet service, to some Canadians.
Here in Southern Canada we had coast-to-coast telephone lines in the 1930s. The Second World War ushered in the information age and it was very clear, in 1945, that Canada’s “thin-route” telephone service that allowed (with the assistance of several switchboard operators) someone in Port Hardy, BC, to talk with a friend or business associate in Glace Bay, NS, was insufficient. It was intuitively obvious to one-and-all, telephone company engineers, bankers and politicians alike, that something bigger and better was needed and in the 1950s the telephone companies, with massive government support, built the Trans-Canada Microwave System. 139 giant towers connected Victoria, BC to Sydney, NS. The project, finally completed in 1958, made the modern, information-age, available to Canadians.
Broadband microwave radio was the only practical way to move HUGE volumes of information ~ voice conversations, TV programmes and data (telegrams and telex) ~ across a continent. Cables could have worked, but only at enormous costs to install and maintain. Satellites allowed us to get rid of the enormous towers and to stop paying for maintenance of them and of the radio repeaters, too.
One more factor before I discuss what might work in remote areas of Canada: it is (relatively) easy to build network backbones in Souther Canada, most of the USA, almost all of Europe and Asia and coastal Australia, too. (Africa has some different issues.) The backbones will be mixes of cable ~ copper, coaxial and glass-fibre, multi-channel radio (usually microwave) and satellite links. The costs (and they are heavy) can be shared by millions of subscribers. The problem is the “last mile:” that’s the term some of us use to describe the connection from the backbone to your home …
… it is, today, mostly good old-fashioned “twisted-pair” copper wire owned by the telephone company or co-axial cable owned by a cable TV service. Some of those companies may be upgrading to higher capacity links, but they are still physical wires in most cases. Now, in my condo (almost 200 units) the cost of providing reliable broadband is cheap when it is shared between almost 200 households ~ a few of which (those that run home-based businesses, for example) even subscribe to two different services. But out in the outer suburbs and rural areas where homes are far apart the cost per subscriber becomes higher and higher. I think, I hope, the reason is obvious: it costs money to install and maintain long lengths of wire and cable. It was hoped, back in the late 1990s early 2000s that wireless (radio) might solve the last mile problem, and 5G is intended to make that possible … amongst many other things we hope 5G will do.
In remote and rural areas of Canada we have people who live far from anyone else or in very small communities which are, in turn, far from each other and they are often in places when construction is difficult and expensive. We never laid telephone lines or cables to remote villages, nor, unless they happened to be very near to a military installation, did we provide even a “thin-route” microwave link. But the people there want and need modern, broadband, digital access to the world.
How to do it?
In one word: expensively! There is no “cheap” way to bring the Internet to my friend Paul in Kugluktuk (a place that some may remember as ‘Coppermine,’ map at the right). The only practical “route” in and out is by satellite and satellite terminals cost money to install, operate and maintain … and they require reliable electrical power, too … and a satellite ground terminal must be built on a very firm, stable foundation, something that can be even more expensive in the far North. There are 1,500 people in the Kugluktuk region, about 1,000 in the town, proper. Now put yourself in the shoes of the telephone company and tell me how you plan to make a profit by connecting Paul in Kugluktuk to the world.
Let’s consider for a minute, a community that has been in the news, for all the wrong reasons: the Neskantaga First Nation in North-Western Ontario. It is a small, isolated (fly-in, only) community of somewhere between 250 and 500 people. There are hundreds of such communities across Canada. Almost all have some satellite access but, usually, I think, not sufficient to provide community wide broadband access. Often not even the community nursing station or the school has reliable Internet service of a quality that we would regard as minimal for a foreign aid project. Getting enough backbone to these small, remote communities requires bigger, better satellite terminals (and new, better satellites, too, but that’s a constantly ongoing project, anyway). The problems that the authoritative International Telecommunications Union enunciated for the least developed countries (Chapter 3) apply to Northern Canada, too:
- High installation and operating costs;
- Very low return on investment for the service provider;
- Insufficient or unreliable electrical power;
- Too few technically qualified people;
- Poor infrastructure ~ not enough local links or subscriber equipment;
- Geography; and
- Lack of ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) literacy which is really hard to acquire until ordinary, local people have the tools.
All those problems are serious but none is insoluble given two things:
- Good management; and
- Enough money.
Of all the problems the two are most difficult, in my opinion, are geography and technically qualified people. I believe that governments (the plural matters) and the private sector can find ways ~ expensive ways, to be sure ~ to build out reliable broadband access to the many, many people who live in rural and emote areas. I do not believe that:
- The private sector can build out such systems on their own. There is not, in my opinion, a sensible business case for it; and
- There is a useful role for a government ICT service. Government owned services can and do work, but ~ and I have lived and worked (in the ICT domain) all over the world ~ they do not EVER work better than private services. they might work as well as … but not better than the private systems. Therefore, we should not reinvent the wheel. Our national ICT system is private and it should remain so.
Bringing modern, broadband to rural and remote areas is a “nation-building” project ~ akin in scope and cost to building the CPR, the Trans-Canada Microwave System and the St Lawrence Seaway ~ and it will need political will and deep pockets. But, just as the people of Kugluktuk and the Neskantaga First Nation are entitled, as Canadians, to clean drinking water (and proper sewage treatment and reliable electrical power) they are also entitled to access to the global information domain.
I’m not suggesting, not for a µsecond, that we should use the Army for this task, but the Army has been connecting dozens of sophisticated computers to networks on other continents for years ~ for decades to my certain knowledge ~ and their equipment and techniques and training methods can be adapted to serve Canadians in remote locations …
… if they can connect computer terminals in Afghanistan to the national network in Canada to watch a hockey game, “live” and, at the same time, have fully secure video conference calls going on with officials in Ottawa, Brussels and Kandahar, as they did, then we can, reliably, connect the schoolroom in Kugluktuk or the nursing station in the Neskantaga First Nation, or a home computer in either place to the world-wide web at a reasonable cost to the user.
So in rural and emote Canada we have few people who live far away from anyone else or in small (less than 500 homes) communities. We never laid telephone lines or cables to those places. They connected to the outside world by a very few single-channel radio links. We didn’t send microwave terminals there eit
her, not unless the community was very close to a major military installation.