Cyberspace brings world to Nunavut's doorstep

90 percent of house-holds can log on in Iqaluit, perhaps one of the best- wired cities.

When you think of "wired communities," what comes to mind? High-tech hotbeds like Silicon Valley? University towns? Affluent suburban kids multitasking with Napster and their online term-paper simultaneously?

Well, sure.

But how about the Canadian Arctic?

With the Internet penetration rate here in Iqaluit at an estimated 90 percent of households, and rates in other communities of the territory similarly high, Nunavut is supposed to be one of the best-wired jurisdictions in Canada - maybe in the world.

"Yeah," says Marcel Mason, Web master for Nunanet, the local Internet service provider (ISP) here in Iqaluit. "And 'supposed to be' is the operative part of that sentence."

Such is the paradox of Nunavut and the Internet. This place is wired. It's hard to imagine how it could hold itself together otherwise. Nunavut has less than 30,000 people sprawled across a landmass nearly three times the size of Texas.

But the same factors of distance, climate, and sparse population that make the territory so dependent on the Internet also make it hard to provide the level of service that this part of the world so desperately needs.

Speaking of customers who rely on local Internet connections, Mr. Mason says, "Most people aren't doing anything other than five-minute burst of checking their e-mail." Nunavut's larger communities have local ISPs, whose customers connect for the cost of a local phone call. "But if you live up in Grise Fjord, and you want to surf the Net, you're going to end up paying a lot to Northwest Tel."

Frederick Ford, owner of Qamanittuaq Fine Arts in Baker Lake, is an example of both the possibilities and the limitations of the Internet in the Arctic. He doesn't sell art online directly. "To have a Web page would be ridiculous. I'd be online all the time updating things," he says.

But he takes high-resolution digital photographs of art objects and e-mails them to potential buyers around the world. These files can take up to 20 minutes to upload, and his monthly phone bills can easily exceed $1,000. "I'm paying twice as much as anywhere else in the country, and I'm getting a quarter of the service," he says.

Part of the problem, he says, is that the Internet is so dominated by government and educational institutions in the territory, and the private-sector economy is so small, that "no one else is going to complain" about poor service.

That should change, though: Broadband wireless, an Internet consortium, has just won a federal government license to establish a broadband wireless network across Nunavut and most of Canada. The new network - called Inukshuk Internet - will consist of land-based towers or "sites" like those of a cellular telephone network. The bits and bytes of Internet content will be zapped to a receiving outdoor antenna. Dean Proctor of Microcell in Montreal, a partner in the Inukshuk consortium, says the new service will be twice as fast as average cable-modem transmission today.

"The main thing is that it will bring high-speed, high-bandwidth Internet service at a reasonable price," says Mr. Itorcheak, who describes himself as "a modern Inuk - with a harpoon in one hand and a briefcase in the other." As a teenager during the late 1980s, he started his career in telecommunications as a technician. "I was the laziest technician Northwest Tel ever had," he says today. "I didn't want to install all that wire!" he says. This predisposition evidently helped convince him that the future was wireless.

Mr. Procter says Nunanet is an ISP that has become "a local information source." Nunanet's political chat rooms, for instance, have drawn as many as 30,000 to 35,000 hits a month, with visitors from as far away as Argentina.

That's the kind of connection that's important in the Nunavut community of Rankin Inlet. Mervin Tulloch, information and communications technology coordinator at the Leo Ussak Elementary School says "Without [the Internet], we'd be kind of stranded in town, so to speak. But it allows us to talk with schools around the world. It shows us deserts and mountains that our students have never seen."

All the schools in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories are online, but Leo Ussak was the first school in the Far North - "North of 60," as the expression goes - to have a Web presence. "We get about 50 e-mails a day from schools around the world," Mr. Tulloch says. "We've had thousands and thousands of postcards."

The Internet lets the school take virtual field trips to places the pupils could never visit. "We've talked to the space shuttle [crew] on two occasions, too," Tulloch says. "It's opened up the world so that little Rankin Inlet isn't so far away anymore."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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