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The challenge of connecting Canada’s north

- June 11, 2012 1:38 pm

There are many challenges that face people living in Canada’s far north. The problems around availability of housing, low rates of student graduation, health care challenges, substance abuse and high rates of suicide are all tragic in a country that is one of the most successful in the world. These are some of the difficult topics that the Conference Board of Canada, Canada’s largest think tank, is trying to tackle with the creation of “The Centre for the North”. Last week, members from federal, provincial, territorial governments, non-profit organizations, foundations and private industry met in Iqaluit, Nunavut to discuss the challenges and possible solutions. My colleague, Willa Black and I had the opportunity to participate at the conference on a panel around connectivity and education in the north. We also had an opportunity to meet a number of organizations in Iqaluit focused on change.

As a background, Nunavut is the newest territory in Canada whose size encompasses 1/5 of all land in Canada.  It is also distinct in that all 25 communities in the territory are only accessible by air or sea. There are no roads. This creates numerous challenges. For instance, the territory has one hospital (in Iqaluit) with only nurse stations in the other 24 communities. These communities can be over 2,000 km away from the nearest hospital, meaning airlifting patients to Iqaluit or hospitals in southern Canada are a regular occurrence. Despite this challenge and the lack of fibre optics-based high speed network connectivity that we enjoy in southern Canada, there is a tremendous entrepreneurial spirit in the North.  

We met with individuals from the Government of Nunavut who have been running a telehealth program for a number of years that connects community nursing stations with the hospital in Iqaluit, and hospitals in Ottawa. In an area where teenage suicides are higher than most places in the world, tele-psychiatry is an area where HealthPresence can be extremely useful. In addition to enabling patients to access to doctors without having to travel, Telepresence is being used to connect separated family members in hospitals with their family at home. This form of video conferencing runs over low bandwidth via satellite, which makes it easier for hospitals to deploy, and the Government of Nunavut is working aggressively to incorporate some of the newer Cisco technologies, like the Cisco EX90, to improve the service further.

We also witnessed that growth in the community has expanded faster than housing can keep up.  As industry increases in the north, with vast natural resources, the need for skilled workers is constantly rising. There are large numbers of unfilled job positions, while unfortunately unemployment among the local population runs extremely high.  Both leaders of northern-based businesses and the Government talked about the difficulties in filling positions with the local Inuit population, or in attracting workers from the south. They face fundamental challenges attracting youth to complete school, enter trades or take up higher education. Part of the solution may be to leverage the Internet and video technologies to educate students, find mentors and inspire them to stay in school. Our fellow panelists included two teachers from Iqaluit and a leader from the Arctic College. We discussed the limitations of the current technology infrastructure in these schools and how, if network bandwidth could be increased, video could change a student’s education experience. We discussed how VROC (virtual researcher on call), a program that runs in southern Canada, can really inspire students by bringing scientists, astronauts and engineers – at the teachers request – into the classroom via two-way video. We look forward to piloting solutions that can bring these technologies, leveraging what bandwidth exists in the communities, to the north over the months and years ahead.  The Arctic College is an example of an institution that is already making significant progress in bringing innovative programs to its three main campuses, but with limited accommodations for students from other communities its key to growth will be distance education using video. We are excited to be working with the Arctic College to launch one of the most northern Cisco Network Academy in the world this fall.

Cisco will continue to help provide technology like advanced video endpoints, wide area application services and content delivery networks that will make the most of what bandwidth exists in northern Canada.

What is really clear is the need to address the much larger issue of the unavailability of high bandwidth connectivity in southern Nunavut communities.  There are a number of potential long term solutions, including a northern arctic fibre route to dramatically increasing capacity on existing, and possibly new, satellites. It will truly take a holistic approach, involving the public and private sector, to truly find solutions to these challenges.

The Centre for the North is, and will continue to be, key in helping pull together these resources to drive change, and Cisco will be there to help play a key role in connecting the north.

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