Just hang on: satellites are coming to save suffering internet users

I have to admit I was wrong. I have been harping about the need to build a backup fibre optic cable since 2011. I argued we needed to escape from the tyranny of Fort Nelson’s backhoe operators.

I have to admit I was wrong.

I have been harping about the need to build a backup fibre optic cable since 2011. I argued we needed to escape from the tyranny of Fort Nelson’s backhoe operators. We needed always-on internet so we could attract tech jobs, like Luleå in Sweden with its giant Facebook data centre cooled by crisp Northern air. We needed a competing cable that would cut internet costs to make our businesses more competitive and attract investment, while still allowing our current and new cable to back each other up. I criticized the Yukon government for lacking vision and dithering about spending a few million bucks on fibre optics while it blew 10 times as much repaving roads that didn’t need paving and replacing government buildings that didn’t need replacing.

It turns out the Yukon government was only pretending to be sloth-like and technophobic. Actually YTG futurists had accurately predicted — unlike me — that a second fibre optic cable wasn’t needed. Instead, tech genius Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX fame is hoping to launch a fleet of mini-satellites that will zip over our heads in low-earth orbit (LEO) providing high-speed internet everywhere from Antarctica to Destruction Bay. According to Ars Technica, Musk’s application to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission envisions over 4,000 mini-satellites orbiting only 1,000 kilometres above our heads. This would allow a satellite to be in range of nearly every place on earth all the time, possibly as soon as the early 2020s.

Thanks to Moore’s Law and the relentless fall in the cost of computing power, these satellites will enable the bandwidth offered to grow and the cost of satellite data to fall dramatically. The plan is for users to enjoy an impressive one gigabyte-per-second service at a cost regular people can afford, with no more equipment required than a pizza box-sized receiver on your roof.

And because LEO satellites are — you guessed it — in low altitude orbits, your bits and bytes can zip around without that weird pause that makes old-style sat-phone conversations so hilarious. The communications satellites we use today are around 30 times farther away than the ones Musk has in mind.

There are actually several companies working on similar plans to launch squadrons of LEO satellites, including a company backed by serial entrepreneur Richard Branson.

The Yukon government is kind of like that guy at F.H. Collins who had the vintage Trans Am with the 8-track stereo. He didn’t bother upgrading the stereo to cassette tape technology. He knew the compact disc was coming. If this actually happens, it could transform many aspects of life in the Yukon. Oracle database architects will work from cabins at remote lakes. Your hunting lodge won’t just have Netflix, it might have American Netflix with all the extra movies. You might be able to buy a coffee with a credit card in Whitehorse even when Fort Nelson’s backhoe operators are at their most obnoxious.

The mind boggles. The latest news, as reported in this paper last week, is that Northwestel has been telling community meetings that the cost of the backup fibre project might end up being double previous estimates. The Yukon government is now reconsidering its options on routes and partners, in case the futurists are wrong and we do end up needing that backup cable.

This may take some time.

After five years of missed economic opportunities, what’s another year or two?

So if the next Yukon government budget keeps up the tradition and fails to commit money to actually get the backup fibre built this year, don’t worry too much. Just look up and lift your iPhone to the Yukon sky. Elon Musk and LEO might be coming to save you, if you can just hang on until some time after 2020.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.

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