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Slow, costly, unreliable telecommunications in the North criticised during CRTC hearings in Whitehorse

Northwestel defended itself on final day of public hearings in Whitehorse
A person pulls out their phone in downtown Whitehorse on April 27. (Dana Hatherly/Yukon News)

“Debit cards wouldn’t work. You couldn’t go to the bank and pull out cash because their system was down. The cell phones were down. People were literally writing IOUs in Dawson to the grocery store,” Peter Turner said.

“That’s literally what we’re down to.”

Turner gave an anecdote of what happens in the Yukon. He is the economic development analyst for the Council of Yukon First Nations. He was the first to present at the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) hearings held in Whitehorse from April 17 to April 21.

High costs, slow speeds and unreliable connections were among the complaints heard by the commission in Whitehorse. The transcripts are available online.

Chairperson Vicky Eatrides explained the purpose of the proceedings is to improve telecommunications services in the Far North.

“Yukon First Nations Indigenous Canadian citizens across the North and, indeed, all Yukoners and northerners, are substantially challenged compared to the citizens of southern Canada in terms of both quality and cost of consumer and business internet access and, indeed, all communications services compared to the south,” Turner said.

“Northern users, especially Yukon First Nations and other Indigenous people, require availability of reliable and affordable telecommunications as much, if not more, than other Canadians.”

Turner noted completion of the redundant connection up to the Dempster Highway to Inuvik and back down the Mackenzie Valley through the Northwest Territories is likely a year out. He said his colleagues in the Yukon First Nations traditional territories have expressed unhappiness about the lack of opportunity for economic participation in the construction of that fibre connection.

“We have limited cell phone service, limited almost exclusively to within Yukon communities themselves. This limitation is often further exacerbated by the fact that Yukon First Nation citizens often live disproportionately outside the centre of towns and are thus further impacted by limited cellular service,” Turner said.

“Additionally, there’s virtually no cellular service on our highway system.”

Turner noted the cost is the primary challenge for Yukon First Nation citizens.

“Yukon consumers and businesses as a whole are offered internet service packages that can cost two to three or even four times the price of comparable performing services in southern Canada, and with the lack of any significant competition in the Yukon, there’s usually not the opportunity to choose from competing offers,” Turner said.

Turner said the COVID-19 pandemic revealed that access to unlimited internet is a basic critical utility like electricity or potable water, particularly in the North.

Turner said the Council of Yukon First Nations believes the CRTC should apply national policies and standards in the North so that northern users have comparable access in price, performance and reliability to services elsewhere in the country.

“Additionally, the principle of reconciliation requires recognition of Yukon First Nation citizens and, indeed, all Indigenous people as rightsholders entitled to participate in cooperative decision-making and actions related to the affordable provisioning of telecommunications services in the north and the CRTC has the responsibility to address reconciliation on behalf of the Crown,” Turner said.

Turner said this responsibility has “yet to be fully met” when it comes to telecommunications. He was asked to elaborate on that.

“There are certain elements that the government licences to providers, and historically First Nations have not been terribly participatory in that process, and yet First Nations own those airwaves, land rights, whatever, as much as any other Canadian, if not more given the final agreements that are in place, particularly here in the Yukon,” Turner said.

“I think it is incumbent upon the federal government to acknowledge that and to, you know, maybe encourage broader participation by First Nations than other Canadians by virtue of that historic imbalance and also the differences emerging from the final agreements and the relationship between the land and First Nations governance.”

Turner noted the issues being discussed were first raised almost a decade ago.

“The CRTC must act on these issues, and act promptly,” Turner said.

“The current state of telecommunications in northern communities where services are substantially less affordable, less reliable and offer lower value and quality of service is unacceptable and inconsistent with the Telecommunications Act policy, equitable regulatory treatment, and declared federal intentions and legislation.”

On April 18, Adrienne Hill represented the First Nation of Nacho Nyäk Dun (FNNND) in Mayo. Hill also compared access to telecommunications to other public utilities.

“We would be eager to work with the CRTC in this regard. We haven’t had strong government-to-government relationship with the CRTC and [FNNND] submits to the commissioners that this ought to change,” Hill said.

“There are various federal departments who seem to outsource perhaps how First Nations interaction should be engaged and this we believe is a detriment to the ongoing relationship where we would like to have some participation in how laws and policies are developed and in relation to telecommunications. To assume it isn’t a First Nation concern I think would be ill-advised.”

Hill noted First Nations have a role to play beyond being involved in fish and wildlife regimes.

“It really is a question of a holistic approach to being involved in sustainable development initiatives that help us maintain a way of life and a cultural connectivity to how we used to live and operate that’s important for our identity and for our ongoing survival,” Hill said.

When asked about the CRTC possibly creating a new subsidy, Hill suggested it should be income tested and cautioned against it being based on race or region.

But subsidies aren’t the only answer for Hill.

“I do believe that the monopolization of major telecom companies across the country have left us extremely vulnerable,” Hill said.

Northwestel had the opportunity to defend itself in the final presentation on April 21.

Northwestel president Curtis Shaw noted the “period of tremendous change” happening in northern telecommunications, as high-speed internet expands to tens of thousands of northern homes and Starlink enters the market. The Starlink network is owned by Elon Musk’s Space X.

“As recently as 2019, zero households in Canada’s North met the commission’s universal service objective, defined as 50/10 unlimited internet. Today, I am proud to report that in the Yukon and Northwest Territories, over four in every five homes now have access to internet that meets, or far exceeds, this standard, with speeds up to five hundred megabits per second,” Shaw said.

“Further investment and strong partnerships are going to remain vital in the years to come. As far as we have come, many Northerners remain on the wrong side of the digital divide. In our satellite-served communities, high-costs and bandwidth constraints mean tens of thousands of Northerners cannot access reliable Internet that meets the commission’s objectives.”

Shaw said fly-in communities are some of the costliest communities to serve.

“This past year, we have invested millions of dollars to transition 35 communities from the failing Anik F2 satellite to a combination of alternative [low Earth orbit] and geostationary satellites. And we have done so without raising internet rates,” he said.

“We know that we must continue to invest to meet emerging global competitors like Starlink. Starlink is competitive right now, and we fully expect Starlink to continue to innovate to bring more capacity and lower rates to northern Canada.”

Shaw said Northwestel has heard Taku River Tlingit First Nation’s (TRTFN) frustration that jurisdictional issues were getting in the way of service improvements.

“We have worked in partnership with the TRTFN and with Telus on a collaborative approach to improve connectivity in the Atlin region, with funding from both companies,” Shaw said.

“As part of this approach, Northwestel will apply to become the [incumbent local exchange carrier] and provide service in Atlin. Northwestel and TRTFN have been collaborating on solutions to improve internet and wireless access in the region, and we will pursue these with urgency.”

In its submission, Northwestel representatives said a CRTC-mandated plan is not necessary.

“We’re being pushed right now by consumer needs, by community needs and competitive forces to accelerate our capital spending,” Shaw said.

Northwestel representatives argued that overage fees are a necessary and widely used tool, which the commission noted may be hitting vulnerable customers the hardest.

Shaw spoke about the company’s process of reconciliation.

“Engaging early, engaging on a community’s terms, engaging often and trying to take the feedback into our construction projects,” he said.

“I’m committed to reconciliation in our plan. I’m committed to seeing real progress and change as a private sector company. And from a northern employer’s standpoint, you know, we’ve really said that we want to set leadership for the northern private companies across Canada.”

Shaw was asked about the shared pathways network which faced criticism during the hearing. According to a May 2022 release, the shared pathways network will see Northwestel making regular payments for the fibre network’s full use for 20 years, guaranteeing direct economic benefits to participating Yukon First Nation communities for decades. In the release, Northwestel will operate and maintain the network at its own cost for that period.

“We have 13 Yukon First Nations come together to buy fibre assets. And we have small First Nations at the table. We have large ones at the table. They all have an equal share in the network,” Shaw said.

“I can’t think of another example in the private sector where 13 Yukon First Nations came together to collaborate on a project. So, it’s something, like for us, it hasn’t been done in the North. I don’t think it’s been done anywhere in Canada.”

Shaw indicated Northwestel has some reflection to do in light of suggestions during the hearing about more transparency over outages in communities.

“I think after this week we’ll be having a really good look at notification and communications and what we do more in the space,” he said.

Contact Dana Hatherly at

Dana Hatherly

About the Author: Dana Hatherly

I’m the legislative reporter for the Yukon News.
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