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Taking the Measure of Internet Access Around the Arctic

The availability of high-speed internet access varies greatly around the circumpolar region. The Arctic Economic Council is urging governments to take steps to encourage greater broadband connectivity for northern residents.

Written by John Thompson Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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The Arctic Economic Council recently released a report that surveys broadband internet availability across Arctic nations.AFP/Andrew Brookes/Cultura Creative

Tara Sweeney, the chair of the Arctic Economic Council, once met a man from the Faroe Islands who earned a living designing maps for flight simulators from his home. The encounter made a lasting impression: if someone living on a remote island in the North Atlantic halfway between Norway and Iceland is able to eke out a living in the high-tech economy, why couldn’t others do the same in Arctic communities?

Naturally, a big impediment to that dream is the lack of availability to high-speed internet connections in a considerable part of the Arctic region. In general, Europe’s Arctic nations put North America’s Arctic internet connectivity to shame, while many remote areas of Russia also remain laggards. But, as indicated by a report recently released by the AEC on the state of broadband access across the Arctic, that picture is changing as new projects roll out.

Along Alaska’s western and northern coasts, a private firm named Quintillion unspooled 1,850 kilometres (1,150 miles) of fiber-optic cable along the seabed last year. Regional hubs along those coasts are expected to start receiving broadband later this year, and the company envisions one day continuing the line that it weaves through Canadian Arctic waters. For now, the Canadian territory of Nunavut remains dependent on slow and expensive satellite feeds for its internet access.

Strides are also being made in northern Russia. The industrial city of Norilsk, which sits above the Arctic Circle with a permanent population of more than 175,000, is expected to soon receive fiber connectivity too, from a 957-km fiber line being built by a mining company that’s the city’s main employer. As well, Russia’s national telecom provider partnered with a subsidiary of Huawei last year to run 900km of high-speed cable along Russia’s east coast to connect the regions of Kamchatka, Sakhalin and Magadan.

We recently spoke to Sweeney about the council’s report on Arctic internet connectivity.

Arctic Deeply: You’ve said before that there’s no single Arctic, there are several, and it’s quite diverse. I imagine that the availability of internet across the Arctic also is quite uneven?

Tara Sweeney: In the past, I’ve said there are four different Arctics. There’s the Russian, the North American, the Nordic and inlaid across those three is the Indigenous Arctic.

When you compare the North American Arctic to the Nordic Arctic, we are light years behind. We have a lot to learn from the innovation that is taking place here in the Nordic countries, and especially countries like Finland where they have innovation clusters, and they just have a different outlook and processes and procedures and capacity from which we can learn. Because the circumpolar Arctic is so vast in terms of distance, having internet capability or capacity in our remote communities, that in and of itself can help close that geographical gap between Arctic communities.

Arctic Deeply: You mentioned that there’s lessons to be learned from the Nordic countries for North America. What are some of those lessons?

Sweeney: You look at a city like Oulu, Finland where there were two tech companies that basically their community was sustained by and built around. When those two exited the city of Oulu and relocated to a different location, they could have, in fact, just devastated that community on an economic scale, and instead what we’re learning is the leadership inside of that community used the campuses of those two tech organizations to attract a different kind of tech market to their community. I learned yesterday that I believe they now house 136 different types of companies in their community.

So, those are the types of lessons that we can learn from the Nordic countries; where you may be completely dependent upon commercial fishing and your fish stocks are depleted, how can we turn that around? Or, if your community is dependent upon oil and gas, what can we learn from the tech industry in remote areas and apply it back home? It’s ripe for pan-Arctic exchange. It’s amazing and there are some fantastic examples out there.

Arctic Deeply: When we compare the Nordic Arctic to the North American Arctic, in fairness to North America, isn’t it just trickier to connect some of the farther-flung communities? Nunavut is the size of any number of European nations all put together, right?

Sweeney: I guess I would flip that on its head a little bit and say, here they certainly have infrastructure beyond what we can enjoy in the North American Arctic. What’s the commitment of the government to ensure that their citizens have this utility and where’s the investment in the appropriate types of infrastructure in North America?

It’s indicative of the commitment of the government to provide this service, and that’s not a criticism. What I’m saying is I think we need to reshuffle the priorities here and make connectivity in the Arctic a priority amongst all levels of government, and you’ve got great advocacy inside organizations like the Arctic Council, but this needs to be a national and international kind of movement. The Canadian government has declared it a basic right and that’s significant progress. That’s the type of progress I’m talking about. Where Finland has declared internet connectivity a human right, that’s progress. So we need more of that good thinking.

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