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.”