Closing the Arctic Connectivity Gap

Once viewed as vast, snow-covered, and desolate, the Arctic is much more bustling than many realize. The Arctic is home to many Inuit communities, and fisheries, resource extraction, and tourism are all commonplace as well. The Government of Canada is also active in the area, protecting Canadian sovereignty. Decreased ice cover due to climate change is opening up more opportunities in the area.

Although human activity in the area has increased, the availability of high-speed internet is virtually nonexistent. There have been many challenges in delivering internet service to the region, whether it’s fibre or satellite, and the digital divide is as vast as the landscape. This blog will explore the challenges and potential solutions to closing the artic connectivity gap.

Why is Arctic Connectivity Important?

More than 150,000 residents live in the Canadian Arctic and internet access is vital to economic development in the area. A 2009 study by the World Bank found that for every 10% increase in broadband penetration, there is a corresponding 1.21% increase in per capita GDP. This would be beneficial to Canada’s Northern territories, which have the lowest GDP numbers in Canada. Residents in Canada’s North deserve the same access as the country’s urban centers and the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns have only exacerbated the region’s connectivity problems. Without the internet, those living in the North don’t have access to things like telemedicine, distance learning, and remote work that many Canadians now take for granted.

The Arctic also has many transitory communications needs. Resource prospectors and researchers working in the Arctic only require internet access for as long as they explore or conduct research. In this situation, it may not make sense to spend the time or money to build a fibre network, but the availability of high-speed internet would be a boon for science. Currently, scientists rely on outdated satellite technology that transmits data in bytes or kilobytes rather than gigabytes available to the rest of the country.

Additionally, due to the cold climate, some businesses may only operate for part of the year. For example, a hunting lodge may be very busy in the summer months but closed in the winter. The property still needs to be maintained, so a caretaker may be brought on during the winter. However, with access to high-speed internet, IoT sensors can be installed to monitor critical systems, rather than paying someone to reside at the property 24/7. If something goes wrong, a caretaker can be alerted and travel to the property to remedy the issue.

Connectivity Challenges

The Arctic’s rugged landscape creates unique challenges in connecting the region. Laying submarine fibre optic cables can be challenging due to large ice sheets. It can also be difficult to bring submarine fibre to shore in bays because a glacier could move in and sever the cables.

Current plans to bring fibre to Nunavut will not connect many of the territory’s 38,000 residents. There is a proposed fibre link being built between Greenland and Nunavut via submarine cable, which will connect the capital of Greenland with only one community outside of Iqaluit. Another proposed fibre link connecting Kivalliq in Nunavut to Manitoba’s hydroelectric and fibre-optic networks will connect five communities in Kivalliq while leaving the remaining 18 without access.

Aside from the issues with fibre internet, some of the scenarios outlined above won’t work with fibre. Fishing boats or cruise ships can’t be connected via fibre, so satellite internet may be the preferred choice.

The only form of internet currently available in the Arctic is satellite, and the technology used to deliver it doesn’t have the best track record in the region. Traditional geostationary (GEO) satellites, which orbit far above the earth at a constant altitude of 35,786 km above the equator, deliver internet to the area. In an area where clouds, rain, and snow are extremely common, this large distance results in outages. In addition, they cannot provide complete coverage at the poles because of the earth’s curvature — typically, coverage is not available plus or minus 70 degrees of latitude from the equator.

There have been instances of widespread loss of connectivity due to satellite outages. In 2011, Nunavut, the only territory in Canada without access to fibre internet, lost all connectivity for 16 hours due to a GEO satellite glitch. As a result, flights were grounded, access to things like banking and phone calls was cut off, and CBC radio was the only way people in Nunavut could receive updates.

Closing the Gap with Low-Earth Orbit Satellite

While GEO satellites tend to perform very poorly in the artic, new generations of satellites — ones that occupy Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO) and Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) — are far more promising.

Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites orbit the earth in less than two hours as they typically orbit between 500 to 1600 km above the surface of the earth. Their proximity means they offer the highest speeds and lowest latency of all three options. These satellites are also the smallest, which means they can be produced faster and at a lower cost than GEO and MEO satellites and because they are closer to the earth, they are less susceptible to outages.

LEO satellite provider, OneWeb, has been busy building up its satellite constellations to serve the Arctic region. While OneWeb has a few competitors, they are poised to be the first company to serve the Arctic starting in late 2021. Additionally, OneWeb’s spectrum license has been approved by the Canadian Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED).

In July 2021, OneWeb launched its eighth set of satellites into low-earth orbit, allowing full coverage about the 50th parallel. The latest launch takes OneWeb’s in-orbit constellation to 254 satellites, or 40% of OneWeb’s planned fleet of 648 LEO satellites that will deliver high-speed, low-latency global connectivity. OneWeb intends to make service available across the globe in 2022.

How Can ROCK Networks Help?

As a unique end-to-end provider of satellite connectivity solutions, ROCK Networks is equipped to help your organization or community close the connectivity gap. We work with satellite service providers such as OneWeb to provide LEO connectivity in Canada as well as the GEO and MEO provider SES. We also work with terminal manufacturers, making us a one-stop-shop for satellite connectivity. Contact us today to speak with a satellite expert.

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