A new campaign by a group entitled DigitalNWT is attempting to expose gaps in northern internet infrastructure by asking residents to test their internet speed.
The #NWTDigitalDivide project will record those speeds in a bid to assess what campaigners say are poor internet quality and high prices in the North.
Canadian authorities currently have little reliable information on northern internet speeds, DigitalNWT organizers say.
Data collected during the project will be used by policymakers and researchers studying what the group terms the “digital divide.”
John McKee, Fort Liard’s senior administrative officer, said the price of internet packages remained a barrier for people in the community.
The hamlet offers free wifi, which helps residents but in turn slows connection speeds for everyone using it, including those who work in the office.
“People in Fort Liard, a lot of them don’t have internet services in their houses,” McKee said.
“Our biggest complaint, of course, is it’s extremely slow. We are using it far more now than we have in the past. The big issue is, it’s really expensive.”
According to DigitalNWT, northern communities face some of the worst internet in Canada – a statement that comes as no surprise to those who have experienced it.
McKee chose the word “agonizing” to describe his internet access.
“Everyone talks about it every time they go on. It’s just continual. We’re going to be using it more and more in the future for accessing things,” he said.
“For example, government services. Somebody comes in and wants a land application. You go on your computer and print it out. You don’t find a piece of paper any more; forms are filled out on the internet.”
What’s to come?
The DigitalNWT campaign hopes government and industry will take swift action to improve northern internet access.
There are signs of improvements ahead, though precisely when and exactly how much difference residents will see is unclear.
Earlier this summer, Northwestel was granted $62 million in federal funding to improve internet across the NWT and Yukon.
The company also announced it will launch unlimited internet packages in four NWT communities – Yellowknife, Hay River, Fort Smith, and Norman Wells – by November this year.
That announcement won’t immediately help communities like Fort Liard.
McKee says he knows people are disappointed to see bigger cities receive promises of new packages and programs, while smaller communities are, in his view, cast aside.
“I see all of the faster services going into Yellowknife and Hay River, the bigger centres, but it’d be nice if we had some of that too,” he said.
“We’re not on the list.”