Thursday, February 02, 2012

By air or by sea

If you were to ask people in Nunavut nagging inconvenience (not to be confused with actual major life and death issues like the high suicide rates, for example) the quality of internet services available in the territory would certainly make most people's top 5 list.

For example, I'm watching a friend of mine, who lives just up the road, venting on Facebook as I write, about her internet speed this evening. Her download is 40.4 mbs, and her upload is 127 mbs. For those of you with any tech savvy living down south, you're probably doing a spit take. But numbers like that, even for those on "high speed" internet are quite typical. She's also probably paying more than $100 a month for that with harsh limits on how much she can use it before the rather severe financial penalties kick in for exceeding it.

But what's interesting is in the last few weeks, we're seeing a bit of a battle for what the next generation of internet servicing the north is going to look like.

In this corner we have Doug Cunningham who is pitching, no kidding, a $600 million fibre-optic cable stretching from Tokyo, Japan to London, England via a route that takes it through the Canadian Arctic. And since it's going through the arctic, well, why not connect it to a bunch of communities along the way, giving the north it's first real taste of what people down south take for granted.

I have to admit, the first time I heard this my finally tuned Sprung Sense went off. Sprung Sense is something all Newfoundlanders have, whose name comes from the disastrous Sprung Greenhouse. Basically, it's the ability to spot a businessman who is pitching something awesome, that people in an area really want, but may well just be someone looking to get a hefty government loan before vanishing into the woodwork and screwing everyone in his wake. Over the decades, Newfoundlanders have had ample experience in dealing with con men promising the moon and the stars, before fleeing with taxpayer dollars.

I'd never heard of Cunningham before and the fact he was talking about running a cable from St. John's to Iqaluit by 2013 and there had been no discussion that I had heard of regarding an Inuit Impact and Benefits Agreement (Article 26 of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement) which people here A. Take very, very seriously and B. Aren't normally completed in a few days (try years) my Sprung Sense was going off like crazy.

Except maybe there is something to it. Telesat, who supplies satellite internet to the north now (My internet is through Telesat) comes out today at the Northern Lights Trade Show and says it's willing to invest $40 million. So I guess they're taking Cunningham somewhat seriously.

Of course, $40 million sounds good, until you realize they're saying $160 million is needed, so that governments will have to pony up the other $120 million. And, oh yeah, that will double capacity over the next 10 years. If you doubled capacity tomorrow it still wouldn't be nearly enough, so I'm not exactly wowed by plans to double it over 10 years.

Although at least there are plans floating around. I should be happy for that much. At some point there has to be a commitment to improve internet services in the north. By air or by sea, I don't care. As long as it happens soon and as long as the improvements are significant.

Last Five
1. Black helicopter (live) - Matthew Good*
2. Threshold - Beck
3. Before destruction - Spoon
4. Sun in the empty room - The Weakerthans
5. Albatross - Fleetwood Mac

1 comment:

The Perfect Storm said...

This made me think (and type too much).

Not trying to be the fly in the ointment (I'll apologize in advance for sounding heartless), but would such an investment, however laudable socially, ever pay for itself?

If it does bring in the cash necessary to carry it and make a profit long term then I am all for ponying up what it takes initially as a taxpayer to make it happen (I'm pretending my own version of the Sprung sense is asleep at the moment).

If it cannot ever pay for itself, who carries the tab long term? It has to be the commonwealth’s taxpayers I assume (“…Because we're here, lad. Nobody else. Just us.” – with an out of context tip of the hat to “Zulu”).

That begs the question: How many things can we afford that don’t give us back hard-dollar value in equal measure? Something really has to crank the 'ol tax revenue to carry the can for services that can’t pay for themselves over the long haul.

Lately, if our economy isn’t stumbling along at the brink of another recession, it’s making a handy chunk of change by shutting down the next batch of jobs (see how London locomotive workers feel about getting the rug pulled out from under them by Caterpillar; how Toronto outside workers are fighting to keep what once were guaranteed-for-life employment contracts).

From the perspective of governing, this is tax revenue that is going (going, gone) and not coming back. Witness for instance Navistar packing it up in Chatham two years ago. Its former workers earn far less than they once did, doing anything but what they were trained for. Chatham shows the result in curtailed municipal maintenance let alone general economic activity.

It’s in times like these that I worry, where the vulnerable are especially at risk in our social programs while we become less able to afford them as a society. Something new that cannot pay for itself must eventually turn to our taxes if it is to survive. However, that in turn can increase the risks for carrying the cost of everything else.

As amenable as we might be to swallowing down new taxes (and their inevitable increases), we taxpayers are also running out of ready sources to pay for them.

The North is hugely important to our nation. Keeping it populated and viable is extraordinarily important as this century unfolds I believe. There are only so many frontiers left where the resources we need globally reside.

Given (I venture) that the bottom of the ocean will continue to be more remote than an Iqaluit or a Grise Fiord for the coming generations, is it simply a matter of waiting until they are centres of industry and commerce before high speed internet comes to town?