Residents test sim cards in Ulukhaktok's community hall as a Starlink-powered network is established. Photo: The Internet Society
This summer, wildfires cut off internet access just when evacuating NWT communities needed it most – unless you had a special dish by your side.
When Hay River’s mayor held a news conference from her evacuated town on August 15, at the height of the territory’s recent wildfire crisis, she told reporters there was “no way” to contact remaining residents if the threat increased.
By that time, regular internet and phone services in Hay River had been down for days. Wildfires had damaged the infrastructure and there was no safe way for technicians to get to it.
Mayor Kandis Jameson was only able to hold a news conference at all because she had access to a Starlink satellite.
Less than a year has passed since Starlink became widely available in the Northwest Territories, but the service – operated by billionaire Elon Musk’s firm, SpaceX – is already taking on the form of a lifeline when traditional infrastructure fails.
Dian Papineau-Magill is the president of CKHR, a Hay River community FM radio station that would ordinarily hope to play a key role in helping residents through a crisis like an evacuation.
But CKHR lost its FM signal when the town’s highrise building – the ideal height for a transmitter – was closed for an extended period following a 2019 fire, and it has since relied on broadcasting via the internet.
“We had no way of transmitting emergency messages or fire updates. We lost everything,” said Papineau-Magill of the fibre line breakdown triggered by the same wildfires that caused the town’s August 13 evacuation.
Even before that, she told Cabin Radio, unreliable internet access was a challenge.
“We’re victims of crows flying into the lines, people taking the pole out on the highway – it could be any number of things,” she said.
Now, CKHR’s board is considering switching to Starlink. Papineau-Magill says she knows a dozen people contemplating the same move.
Not possible a year ago
Farther north, damage to a different fibre line caused a weeks-long slowdown in internet speeds for communities in the Beaufort Delta region.
In Inuvik, New North Networks – a small internet service provider usually reliant on the fibre line to connect its customers – turned to Starlink and a similar service, OneWeb, to meet its needs.
Both Starlink and OneWeb are examples of low-Earth orbit satellites, a new way to provide internet access using banks of satellites to send data directly to customers using small receivers stationed outside their homes, in full view of the sky.
That means much less infrastructure on the ground and in the wilderness, where it could be vulnerable to wildfires, vandalism or other damage.
Low-Earth orbit satellites, or LEOs, are only now starting to feel practical and affordable in the North. Starlink was first funded as a program in 2014 and launched its opening batch of 60 satellites in May 2019.
“A year ago, this would not have been possible,” Zubko said of New North’s switch to Starlink and OneWeb as a backup option.
Now, thousands of LEOs circle the Earth. Unlike older generations of satellite, they are small and offer low latency – in other words, they reduce the delays in communication that used to be commonly associated with sending data via space.
Competition in the LEO sector is increasing all the time.
Amazon is the latest contender, launching Project Kuiper, which the retail giant says will cost $10 billion and launch more than 3,000 satellites. Starlink, looking to corner the northern market before other providers arrive, has recently used online advertising to push discounted plans for new customers in isolated communities. (SpaceX didn’t respond to a request for comment for this article.)
Zubko says New North isn’t ready to make the full leap from fibre to satellite. He says fibre still offers more bandwidth. Fibre is also robust where redundancy exists, and that’s an area where the NWT is lacking. Various projects to install backup fibre lines in the territory are in the works.
For example, construction of a new Dempster fibre line, running from Yukon’s Dawson City to Inuvik, has begun. The project will create a 4,000-km network of fibre lines and is set to be completed by November next year.
That line will provide redundancy to Inuvik, Zubko says, meaning that if one line goes down, another can keep the town online.
As a rule, fibre line infrastructure in the NWT is either owned or operated by Northwestel, a subsidiary of Bell.
“We’re proud to offer the fastest home internet in the North, with speeds up to 500 Mbps and unlimited data,” a Northwestel spokesperson said by email when we asked about the changing northern internet landscape. While Northwestel does have partnerships with LEO providers – and uses them to serve some communities – much of the company’s business is based on its development and operation of vast fibre lines.
“We have launched fibre-to-the-home internet in 17 NWT communities, bringing the same leading network technology that powers Canada’s largest cities to homes across the territory,” the company stated.
“We’ll continue to invest in bringing the best fibre technology to more northern homes.”
Paulatuk makes the switch
But there are still some northern communities without fibre access, and Zubko says LEOs are a game-changer in those areas.
“The central and eastern arctic places are not likely to see fibre for a long time. If ever,” he said. But all they need to access Starlink, or a rival service, is a small dish of their own and a subscription.
In Paulatuk, senior administrator Aaron Ruben says the community has spent the past year moving from Northwestel’s DSL internet service to Starlink.
Northwestel has Paulatuk on the list for its Every Community project, a three-year bid to bring ultra-fast internet to every NWT community using a mix of fibre and LEOs. Service to Paulatuk is listed as “in development” on the company’s project webpage.
But Ruben says residents of the 265-person community, which has no road access, are well ahead of that.
At the moment, Northwestel’s fastest internet plan in Paulatuk costs $129 per month for a cap of 200 gigabytes’ data usage and maximum download speeds of 15 Mbps.
Starlink, for $140 a month (plus a one-off equipment fee of $759 that is sometimes heavily discounted), pledges unlimited data with no contract and download speeds faster than 100 Mbps for “a majority of users.”
“Starlink is more affordable, even to people that have low income,” said Ruben.
So far, nearly 90 percent of Paulatuk residents use Starlink, Ruben said. Some even own a second dish to take out on the land, to stay connected with their families.
In Ulukhaktok, 100 km northeast of Paulatuk across a stretch of Arctic Ocean, a Starlink connection funded by the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation was set up in the community hall – and used to create universal, free internet for residents.
“We built a solution through sim cards that were distributed in the community,” said Natalie Campbell of the Internet Society, which was a partner on the project.
“You can access the network wherever you are in the community, and for no charge.”
If Hay River had the same system, Campbell said, there would have been a way for remaining residents and officials to stay connected as the town’s evacuation progressed.
Even if the tipping point isn’t here yet, Campbell said, LEOs have now demonstrated how they can play a critical role in emergency response.
“They can be deployed in advance, in addition to or alongside fibre infrastructure,” she said. “To be prepared, as a backup.”