When it comes to keeping the North dialed up and online during a global pandemic, there are a few challenges – to say the least.
It’s not that Northern technology needs are any different from those in the South, says Bernie MacNeil, owner of Arctic Digital in Inuvik. Businesses, organizations, governments, and communities all rely on internet access, computers, and cellphones to keep up, just like everywhere else.
It’s the lack of IT infrastructure that really throws a wrench in things.
MacNeil noticed this when he worked for the federal government over 30 years ago. While traveling across the NWT, he saw the difficulties that a lack of technological supports in remote communities can create.
“[It] kind of gave me the idea,” MacNeil said. “And then I took action on it. I left the government and started the business back in 1990.”
That’s how Arctic Digital came to be. For 30 years now, MacNeil and his team have been providing IT supports across the NWT, most notably the Beaufort Delta Region, to try and help fill the gaps in access MacNeil saw.
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, demand for Arctic Digital’s products and services has only grown, MacNeil said.
Virtual demands soar
Communication technology and IT services were deemed essential by the Canadian federal government, so the business never closed. More people are buying laptops as they work from home, and reliable internet has become a necessity as employees, students, and families try to navigate a socially distanced world.
MacNeil has definitely noticed the scramble for technology in his own business. The demand for webcams has gone through the roof, and MacNeil said he’s scrambling to source the product.
Yet as one of the only IT companies in the NWT’s far north, Arctic Digital has taken the lead in keeping people connected, MacNeil said.
“For example, say a school wants to provide their students internet access. They can purchase a little USB stick that can provide mobile internet, they can hand it out to a student, the student can go home, plug it into their laptop, and then they’ve got internet service.”
“We’ve stepped up to the plate and managed to provide that service to kind of keep the whole system running,” he added.
Since Covid-19 has made remote work the new norm, scholars and community organizers around the world have argued that access to technology and reliable internet has become a basic human right.
In July, YWCA Canada and the University of Toronto published a document titled “A Feminist Economic Recovery Plan for Canada.” One of its primary calls to action was the prioritization of high-speed internet in remote and Northern communities.
‘A basic right’
The report showed there are growing chasms between those with the ability to remain virtually connected in times of crisis and those without.
In Inuvik, the maximum Internet speed through the service provider is 15 megabits per second for downloading, and five megabits per second for uploading. In Tuktoyaktuk, the speed is 12 megabits per second for downloading.
In Toronto, one of the highest Internet speeds is 1000 megabits per second for downloading.
“There’s no question that the pandemic has highlighted differences between some of the larger communities and the smaller communities – access to the Internet, especially,” MacNeil said.
Addressing the technological needs of communities has been part of the federal and territorial government’s responses to the pandemic.
In August, CanNor pledged $62 million to Northwestel, the NWT internet provider, to improve broadband services across the territory, a part of its plan to bring unlimited Internet to the North. Northwestel will be using the funds to install 316 km of fibre lines in the NWT and Yukon, as well as using satellites for some communities and hybrid-fibre coax broadband network.
“It’s a real step forward,” MacNeil said of the funding commitment. “Hopefully they’ll start making use of that money to get better service here.”
In the meantime, Arctic Digital continues to plug away, working to get the NWT’s far north connected.
“It’s the market supply and demand,” MacNeil said. “The market demanded it, so we had to supply it.”
This coverage of the NWT’s business sector during the Covid-19 pandemic is sponsored by the NWT’s Department of Industry, Tourism, and Investment. Visit Buy North for more information on businesses near you.