Military wants better cell plan

With the Canadian Forces spending more time in the North, Northwestel might have to bulk up its telecom network.

With the Canadian Forces spending more time in the North, Northwestel might have to bulk up its telecom network.

The military is working to increase Northwestel’s capacity, “both in a steady state, but also in a surge,” Brig.-Gen. David Millar, commander of Joint Task Force North, told a CBC reporter in late August.

An emergency – whether military or not – is going to need more communications “horsepower,” he said.

“Beefing up the communications capability in the North is what we need to do,” said Maj. Tom Bachelder, chairman of a Yellowknife-based communications working group.

During Operation Nanook – the military’s annual Northern exercise – the Iqaluit cell network suffered a “catastrophic failure.”

“From 2 a.m to 5 a.m., their network was down,” said Bachelder.

“If it had happened two days later, it would have affected the whole government exercise,” he said.

Seven hundred military personnel had been shipped up to Iqaluit for the exercise.

The increased demand in the cell network is not believed to have been a factor in the failure.

“How Northwestel maintains their stuff is Northwestel’s business,” said Bachelder.

The Iqualuit network has “sufficient capacity” to handle the increased demand, said Curtis Shaw, Northwestel’s vice-president of consumer and small business affairs.

Meetings have been held between Northwestel and the military to find common ground on expanding the capacity of Northern communications.

“If (the military) can determine common issues we have with communication, then we can go to providers, such as Northwestel, and say, ‘We have these comms issues; what are you doing to address these comms issues? What’s coming down the pipe?’” said Bachelder.

Of course, cellphone coverage is only one aspect of how the military talks to itself.

“Obviously, when they’re doing operations out on the tundra, they’re not going to have access to cellular coverage,” said Shaw.

“Maybe Northwestel isn’t the provider that’s going to solve all of our problems – but they may know who can, or can’t,” said Bachelder.

Bolstering northern communications has become a top Canadian Forces priority.

Especially when winter hits.

“In the summertime I don’t think there is a communication issue,” said Bachelder.

“But we get into the cold weather and then we have the challenges,” he said.

High-frequency radios get bogged down by high winds and bad weather.

Satellite radios need clear skies; if heavy weather hits, a unit could find themselves cut off from outside communications.

Iridium radios are “fairly reliable,” but not fit for the ultra-cold of the Arctic.

The manufacturer doesn’t recommend using the radios in anything colder than minus 10.

“If we’re out on a ranger patrol and it’s minus 40, it’s not a system that you’ll just pull out of your pocket and be able to talk on,” said Bachelder.

Contact Tristin Hopper at