Broadband for All in the Arctic? A Comparative Analysis of U.S. and Canadian Policies
Posted: 4 Apr 2016
Date Written: March 30, 2016
Access to broadband is necessary for rural and remote communities to participate in the digital economy – for access to services such as online banking, ecommerce, government programs, education and training, telehealth, community and small business entrepreneurship. These services are particularly important for isolated, primarily indigenous communities across the North, which may be hundreds of miles by road from the nearest hospital or airport, or without any road access at all. Alaska has 200 villages scattered over more than 663,000 square miles, while in northern Canada, a similar number of isolated indigenous communities are located in the three northern territories (Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut) and the northern regions of seven provinces.
In both countries two major barriers remain: • Need for high speed connectivity, typically requiring upgrades to middle mile and backbone infrastructure; and • Affordability: in locations where infrastructure has been upgraded, prices including monthly fees and overage charges are beyond the means of low income households, small businesses and nonprofit organizations.
This paper compares recent policies in Canada and the U.S. intended to address these problems, and provides findings from recent research in the northern regions of each country on adoption and usage of digital technologies. The paper places this research within the context of current policy and regulatory activities concerning access to broadband in the Arctic. For example, the Arctic Council has established Arctic telecommunications as a priority issue in the 2015-2017 timeframe during the U.S. chairmanship. Also, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is currently holding hearings on whether broadband should be a basic service available to all Canadians, including those in isolated indigenous communities. In the U.S, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has initiated several funding programs for rural, remote and primarily Native regions, and has approved Lifeline broadband subsidies for low income residents.
The paper reports findings from recent field research with isolated indigenous communities in both countries. Interviews were conducted in southwest Alaska with managers of tribal and local governments, commercial enterprises, small businesses, nonprofit organizations, and schools and libraries. Respondents listed many benefits of using the new networks in their work, but all of the small businesses, governments and nonprofit organizations stated that the high prices prevented them from taking full advantage of the connectivity – for example for videoconferencing, webinars, and accessing cloud-based services. Two just-completed case studies in Canadian indigenous communities also found widespread use of social networking for connecting family and friends and sharing news, as well as use of online services for management of tribal governments, access to regional and federal government services, education and health care. Again, affordability was cited as the major barrier to greater usage.
The paper provides an analysis of affordability of broadband in the northern regions of both countries, using pricing data from incumbent providers and as income and other socio-economic data.
The comparative analysis also examines indigenous engagement in provision of services. Incumbent carriers dominate in both Alaska and northern Canada. In Alaska, some Native cooperatives operate local communications networks, but none are certified as Eligible Telecommunications Carriers (ETCs) that would qualify to receive federal funding for backbone and mobile networks and to receive operating subsidies from Universal Service Funds. In northern Canada, there are some indigenous ISPs as well as native-operated regional satellite, fiber and microwave networks, but government funding is limited to capital investments, with no operating support.
The paper concludes with proposals to address the connectivity and affordability gaps and lessons from the experience in each country that are relevant for not only for Arctic North America but for other isolated and developing regions.
Keywords: rural, broadband, indigenous, Arctic, adoption, affordability
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation