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How Nunavut Arctic College is bridging the digital divide in five remote communities

By Caitlin Sears
Grants Coordinator

Jennifer Lane understands the internet challenges faced by communities in the North all too well. Her role as Strategic IT Advisor at Nunavut Arctic College (NAC) puts her on the front lines of frustration across faculty and students alike.

The college’s mission is to provide accessible, relevant, high-quality education and training programs, playing a vital role in supporting the social, cultural and economic development of Nunavut communities.

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Like many remote, Northern and Indigenous communities across Canada, Nunavut’s vast, rugged terrain is uniquely beautiful, which also makes it difficult to lay cables or build the required infrastructure. High initial setup costs and ongoing maintenance fees result in unaffordable internet service for many communities, and speeds can be frustratingly slow. NAC had to distribute mobile internet sticks to students and faculty so they could get online. They typically experienced speeds of 5/1 Mpbs, making any kind of online academic work nearly impossible.

This led Jennifer to take the first big step to change the situation. She successfully lobbied for NAC to join the National Research and Education Network (NREN), a high-speed satellite network that connects researchers and educators to databases, research tools, technology and colleagues around the world. Nunavut was the very last of Canada’s provinces and territories to join the network.

“You need to have high-speed internet to join the NREN, and until LEO (low-earth orbit) technology came into play in the North, it just wasn’t a viable option,” Jennifer explained.

And that opened up a new issue for Jennifer and NAC. Deploying and maintaining the network comes with high costs. “It’s about $1.5 million a year just in bandwidth and managed services for the network, never mind the cost of wireless access points. We were struggling to come up with the costs of implementation,” she said. Without wireless connectivity, she knew the new network would have little meaning to students and faculty if they couldn’t connect their laptops and SMART boards via WiFi.

While the federal government committed to connecting 98 per cent of Canadians to high-speed internet by 2026 and 100 per cent of Canadians by 2030, the needs of Northern, rural and Indigenous communities are not fully or sufficiently met by government or major telecommunications providers at this time—which leaves many communities in the position of solving their own access issues.

That’s where CIRA’s Net Good Grants come in. CIRA recognizes that the provision of sufficient internet infrastructure at the community level is where digital equity begins. In fact, 68% of the projects CIRA funded in 2023 focus on serving Indigenous communities, and 43% are infrastructure related.

Jennifer applied for a CIRA grant to fund the deployment of LEO wireless infrastructure on campus in five remote communities: Rankin Inlet, Iqaluit, Cambridge Bay, Clyde River and Arviat.

“Funding the wireless access points as part of the overall network implementation with a CIRA grant made a lot of sense because it’s allowing us to expand connectivity and make it accessible for all our researchers and educators. So, we’re very excited about it,” Jennifer said.

All of the Iqaluit buildings now have free wireless connectivity, powered by Ontario-based internet provider Galaxy Broadband with lightning-fast speeds of 200 to 500/50 Mpbs.

The college just celebrated the launch of its new connectivity at the Iqaluit campus with a ribbon cutting ceremony on August 22, attended by ministerial supporters, the NAC’s board of governors and other stakeholders. “That was the day we were able to give out the network credentials for the first time and ask them to connect,” Jennifer said about the event. “Never ever before could we have had 60 people in one room connect to the WiFi at the same time. You just heard ‘wow’ in the crowd. It was so amazing.”

College president Rebecca Mearns cuts the ribbon at the ceremony. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Lane.

It’s a great start to the new academic year for students and staff at the Iqaluit campus. The connection is strong even in rainy weather, which would have typically meant poor speeds prior to joining the network. “The biggest piece of feedback I’ve heard so far is that people are amazed they can complete a call without it cutting out,” Jennifer said.

Now that NAC is part of a global web of more than 100 NRENs around the world, Jennifer plans to expand connectivity to all 25 communities in Nunavut by the end of next year and hopes to apply for a CIRA grant again in the future. The ultimate goal of the project is to facilitate the longer-term development of these underserved communities and contribute to their overall sustainability and economic growth.

“Now researchers, educators and innovators in Nunavut have the ability to connect to the network no matter their location and share information, tools and research that will build partnerships and advance their educational opportunities,” Jennifer said. “It’s an exciting step for researchers and education in Canada.”

CIRA funds community-led internet projects in three areas: infrastructure, online safety, and policy engagement. The application period for the next round of funding will open in March 2024.

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About the author
Caitlin Sears

Caitlin joined CIRA in January 2023 as Grants Coordinator. Her background is in the non-profit sector, and she is passionate about funding digital equity.