Regional differences complicate efforts to bring broadband to the Arctic

By Kevin McGwin, The Arctic Journal - February 23, 2017

As part of its assessment of the telecommunications needs in the North, the Arctic Council’s Task Force on Telecommunications Infrastructure in the Arctic is carrying out what is known as a “gap analysis.”

Those familiar with management principles will know that this is a comparison of the current situation with the one that is desired. The quick answer from those who wrestle with pokey connections is that much is desired. But what the report will underscore when it is presented to the Arctic Council in May is that not all Northern communities are equally sluggish.

Residents of the Scandinavian and Russian Arctic, according to Bo Andersen, one of the task force’s co-chairs, do fairly well. “Many of these areas,” he says, “are covered as well as other parts of the world.”

There are several reasons for this. Businesspeople point out that geography and demographics play a role: the Nordic countries are much smaller than Alaska or Canada’s northern territories, and its people are closer to big population centres. This reduces the difficulty and cost of getting them on-line.

Another reason is that, unlike the North American Arctic, governments in these regions tend to view internet connections as a public service, sort of like bus route in rural areas. “The service might not be commercially viable, but, for those who do use it, it is vital,” Andersen says. For countries like Norway, making sure there is a good internet connection in Northern areas, including Svalbard, is also a strategic decision that keeps them viable.

That Europe’s Arctic is well connected and North America’s is not, is well documented. Most recently, the Arctic Economic Council, in its own assessment of the region’s internet needs, found that only 27 percent of households in Nunavut have access to broadband, compared with 99 percent for Canada as a whole. People in Norway’s northernmost regions, by comparison, have access to fiber-optic networks and 4G mobile service at similar rate as a southern parts of the country. The next step will be to see whether broadband can be extended to users offshore.

The AEC’s recommendation – that “a regional broadband strategy encompassing eight countries with varying needs and degrees of development requires ambitious but flexible objectives” – underscores the challenge of coming up with a universal solution.

Andersen agrees. The variability of the gap, as well as varying national priorities, means there likely is no single best way to expand coverage, he believes. Even so, there are things the task force will suggest that decision-makers keep in mind when considering how to expand connectivity.

The first is that is unrealistic to expect that there will be enough ordinary consumers to justify the expense of building telecommunications infrastructure in the North. “A consumer model,” he says, “is not commercially viable.”

Governments can chip in the money to expand access, but for those unwilling or unable to do so, the only other option is the private sector, either through purely commercial projects or in public-private partnerships, a hybrid model. Given the sparse population in the North, however, any privately funded project will not be set up to give homes and schools a faster connection. It is true, for example, that Quintillion, a high-profile project that is currently laying fibre-optic cable along Alaska’s northern coast, is expected to improve internet access there and in northern Canada. The ultimate goal of the project, however, is to link Tokyo with London, to provide traders with faster transaction times.

In Alaska, where the first phase of Quintillion’s project is being built, the cable’s connections to land come ashore mostly in larger communities. Plans for the Canada-to-London leg, the last of three sections, remain vague on where it will come ashore. For now, the company is working to secure funding to complete the project.

Expanding mining activity is another way better internet access might arrive in the region. If a mining firm establishes service with a telecoms operator, the connection can be used by nearby communities as well.

Those familiar with infrastructure say this situation is unique neither to the Arctic nor the internet. “If there is infrastructure in a remote area, it either exists because of a commercial development, or because it was a political priority to put it there,” notes one executive involved with an Arctic internet project.

This is why one of the other things governments should do, Andersen says, is to think outside the Arctic. “Other sparsely populated areas have the internet. We should look at what they did to get it and ask if it is something we can copy.”

On land, and even for some off-shore activities, fiber-optic cables are one possible solution. In some areas, improved satellite service provides an alternative. For ships, and for communities where laying a cable is impossible, such as Greenland’s north-western coast, which is cut off from the country’s underwater fiber-optic cable by a glacier-producing fjord, they may be the only option.

Arctic residents holding out for a faster connection may cringe at the thought of expensive, slow and intermittent satellite service, but there are a number of options that may have them changing their attitude.

One idea already in use is placing satellites circling the earth in highly elliptical polar orbits. Doing so allows them to keep a single area in sight for long periods of time.

Russia has been using these types of orbits, known as Molniya orbits, after the Soviet satellites that were the first to try them in the 1960s, to allow satellites to keep its Arctic region in sight for 11 hours of a 12 hour orbit. The catch is that at least three satellites working in tandem are needed to guarantee uninterrupted coverage. Russia’s most recent generation of Molnyia satellites went up between 2006 and 2014. Four more are expected to be put into orbit in 2018.

A second satellite option that is generating enthusiasm is what is known as a constellation, networks of scores of small satellites flying in a low orbit. These networks have the benefit of not being specific to a single region or an individual project, which eliminates the need to launch expensive satellites for a few users, or to wait for an anchor client to pay for the initial investment.

Ronald van der Breggen, an executive with LeoSat, which hopes to have a constellation on-line soon, admits that his company’s product is but of several competing options, but, making the case for constellations, he highlights two advantages. Firstly, he reckons constellations will come on-line before any of the big fiber-optic cables are ready.

Secondly, with so many satellites in orbit, constellations can offer the same type of redundancy terrestrial networks give users at lower latitudes; one constellation satellite failing does not bring the system to a halt in the way that a broken cable or damaged Molniya satellite would.

“Essentially, a constellation combines the merits of a ground-based network with the advantages of space,” van der Breggen says.

The drawback of constellations are their price tag. LeoSat’s is expected to cost $3.5 billion, or about five times the amount it will take to lay Quintillion’s cable. Though van der Breggen believes a cost-benefit analysis falls out to constellations’ favour.

“We’re going to have a global network in place,” he says. “We think it will serve the Arctic well, and possibly even better than other places, given the way the satellites will be positioned.”

That would be a upgrade even well-connected Europeans would have a hard time skipping over.