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Nunavut broadband proponents unsure of fibre
Arctic Fibre proposes undersea Asia-Europe line through Northwest Passage

Casey Lessard
Northern News Services
Published Friday, June 29, 2012

Doug Cunningham wants to leave his legacy in the Arctic, bringing state-of-the-art broadband to most Nunavummiut while lowering prices for Internet across the North. Long-time Internet expert Adamee Itorcheak, however, isn't convinced it's right for Nunavut.

NNSL photo/graphic

Arctic Fibre president Doug Cunningham says his fibre optic cable from Tokyo to London via the Northwest Passage will give Asian customers an advantage, and Nunavummiut could benefit in turn. - Casey Lessard/NNSL photo

"I've seen so many projects that were sold to us," said Itorcheak, vice-president of the Nunavut Broadband Development Corporation, "and on the second or third phases, there's no money anymore. They will end up leaving it status quo. (After such projects,) the only communities that were benefitting were the three regional centres, Iqaluit, Rankin Inlet and Cambridge Bay."

Cunningham's Arctic Fibre project, as explained at a June 25 open house in Iqaluit, involves laying 15,300 km of fibre optic cable along the ocean floor from Asia to Europe and branching into many Northern communities along the way.

"I believe we have sufficient federal government support now, and support from other provincial governments, to make this happen," he said.

The first part of the project is a $602-million privately-funded primary network that links Milton, N.L. to Iqaluit, then to Cambridge Bay and Tuktoyaktuk before branching from each end to London, U.K. and Tokyo, Japan. With $192 million in government support, the network could extend to bring Arviat, Pond Inlet, Resolute, Kuujjuaq, and Nain, N.L. into the loop.

That's where Itorcheak, who is Premier Eva Aariak's constituency office assistant and a Northern Internet entrepreneur, becomes concerned; he doesn't want a project that will require government support to connect end users.

"Not at the expense of Nunavummiut," he said. He's concerned that, unlike satellite, the fibre optic network would only connect 92 per cent of Nunavummiut, and therefore leave the remaining eight per cent without access to the line.

The primary network would include stops in Iqaluit, Cape Dorset, Hall Beach, Iglulik, Taloyoak, Gjoa Haven and Cambridge Bay. The secondary network could include Pangnirtung, Qikiqtarjuaq, Clyde River, Pond Inlet, Resolute Bay, Coral Harbour, Chesterfield Inlet, Rankin Inlet, Arviat, and Kugluktuk, as well as six Nunavik communities.

The second network would require government investment, and without it, only 52 per cent of Nunavummiut would be connected to the fibre network. To Itorcheak, that creates an inequity between the people of Iqaluit and Grise Fiord that he believes should not exist as all are equally Nunavummiut.

"Any time they put fibre optic into a community, they become a gateway," he said in praise of the idea. That said, "it will never be financially viable in some communities. You don't want to create that digital divide."

Fighting the proposal is not in Nunavut's best interest, Cunningham said.

"What we're doing provides great economic benefit," he said. "If you don't have access to the Internet going forward in a particular community, the people will be left behind. What we are doing is in the public good. It's giving a massive opportunity to allow their culture to continue and thrive."

The line would bring much needed high-speed Internet to the territory, far faster and far cheaper than satellite. The hundreds of millions of Asian telecoms customers hoping to connect more quickly with London while bypassing the tumultuous Red Sea region and wires under United States surveillance would heavily subsidize the backbone, bringing the company in $15-$18 million annually. Their use of the link would help drop prices for Canadian customers by 35 to 40 per cent, Cunningham said.

As of July 1, the company has opened the network's sales to the market, asking how much Internet providers are willing to buy at a ceiling price of $450 per month per megabit-per-second. He expects the long-term price will be $110 to $120 per megabit-per-second, which compares to expected costs of $1,600 or $1,700 for satellite.

"If NBDC is so married to satellite that they don't want to come in, that's their prerogative," he said. "But at the end of the day, if NorthwesTel and any other new market entry has capacity costs to get traffic from southern Canada to here at $150 a megabit, there won't be many people on Qiniq going forward."

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