Five northern community broadband projects in the N.W.T., Yukon and northern Manitoba will share in $72 million of Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) Broadband Fund money.
According to a press release from the CRTC Wednesday, the projects are designed to improve broadband internet service for about 10,100 households in 51 communities.
The CRTC will dedicate $750 million to projects that improve broadband services in rural and remote communities over the next five years. Many communities in the North rely on slower satellite data connections for internet service.
Ian Scott, the CRTC’s chairperson, told the CBC in an interview that the COVID-19 pandemic
“put a magnifying glass” on how important internet connectivity is for northern communities.
“The pandemic makes [internet] even more important as children are trying to learn at home, as parents are working at home,” Scott said.
“This all taxes the system and makes it more important — but it was important before, and it will be important after.”
The money will go to Northwestel for two projects in the N.W.T. and two projects in Yukon, and to Broadband Communications North for a satellite project in northern Manitoba.
All projects will improve internet service in communities that do not meet a “universal service objective.”
This is the CRTC’s first round of funding, dedicated specifically for northern communities. The second phase will look at project proposals from across Canada.
Dozens of Yukon, N.W.T. communities connected to fibre
According to the press release, 316 kilometres of new fibre optic line will be installed in Yukon and the N.W.T.
Nineteen communities representing 4,680 households in Yukon are expected to have access to 50 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload speeds (50/10) and unlimited data upon completion of Northwestel’s Yukon fibre project. The total cost of that project is $50 million, of which $38.6 million is coming from the money announced Wednesday.
Northwestel will receive a further $2.86 million from the fund for its Old Crow satellite project. Once completed, it is expected to bring 50/10 service with access to unlimited data to 189 households.
In the N.W.T., 18 communities representing 3,643 households are expected to have 50/10 speeds and access to unlimited data after the completion of a fibre line project.
The project will connect the Yellowknives Dene First Nation band office, the community of Dettah and 17 others to fibre directly in their homes and businesses. The total cost of the project is $24.5 million. The federal broadband fund’s contribution to the work is $16.8 million.
Eight other communities in the N.W.T. — Paulatuk, Ulukhaktok, Sachs Harbour, Łutselk’e, Sambaa K’e, Colville Lake, Gamètì, and Wekweètì — are expected to receive 50/10 service and access to unlimited data under Northwestel’s N.W.T. satellite project. The total cost for this is $6.1 million with $4.1 million coming from the broadband fund.
In a statement, Northwestel president Curtis Shaw said the announcement is “great news for northern Canadians,” and thanked the CRTC for its contribution.
Manitoba gets nearly $10 million for satellite projects
In Manitoba, five satellite-dependent communities will have access to 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload, but with unlimited data. The press release states this interim work in Manitoba represents “a significant improvement” over service those communities now enjoy.
In Manitoba, Broadband Communications North will receive $9.9 million from the fund toward a $21.3 million project to offer 10 Mbps second upload and 1 Mbps download speed with access to unlimited data in Tadoule Lake, Barren Lands, Lac Brochet, Pukatawagan, and Shamattawa.
According to the CRTC, this is an interim project with more improvements to be delivered later.
Four projects in N.W.T., Yukon given to Northwestel
Scott said Northwestel and Broadband Communications North will not be receiving any money up front. They will only get access to some of the funds once they write an agreement with the CRTC that spells out what community outreach needs to be done and the timeline for the project along with what supplies they need.
The rest of the money will be given in instalments once the companies start the work.
The CRTC earmarked $62.2 million out of the $72.1 million in today’s announcement for Northwestel.
Scott said it was “not a shock” that Northwestel was given the majority of the funding because of their status as the main telecommunications provider in northern Canada. However, Scott said company ownership did not factor into the CRTC’s decision — it was exclusively based on merit.
“They put forward the best projects,” Scott said. “There’s a very developed criteria that we look at.
“Whether or not you’re the incumbent telephone company is not one of them.”
The CRTC says the telecom companies must commit to completing their projects in three years. It’s not clear whether that is three years from today’s announcement, or three years from the date of their agreement with the CRTC.
Northwestel was not asked whether they would be able to meet the three-year deadline for all four of their projects during the review process, Scott said.
“The onus is now on them,” he said. “They said they can, now they have to prove it to us and then we’ll fund it.”
In the future, Scott said it is a “laudable objective” to increase the amount of competition from smaller telecommunications companies in the North against Northwestel.
“I’ll start with let’s get 50/10 service where we can in these communities, then we will try … and do everything we can to further consumer choice and competition,” Scott said.
Nunavut excluded from first round of funding
According to the press release, broadband projects in Nunavut were excluded from this first round of funding. The press release stated they were “deferred to the second call for applications” without saying why.
When asked, Scott told CBC the CRTC will be comparing all satellite-dependent community projects in the second round of funding.
“Nunavut hasn’t been forgotten,” Scott said.
It’s not clear how many pitches for projects there are for Nunavut.