Unlimited internet has come to part of Canada’s northern territories, but patchy service and exorbitant fees mean internet access is still a challenge for many people.
Northwestel, the major—and sometimes the only—internet service provider in the North began offering unlimited internet to select communities on December 1. Their services will be offered in Whitehorse and Carcross in Yukon; Yellowknife, Norman Wells, Fort Smith and Hay River in the Northwest Territories; and Fort Nelson, British Columbia.
The unlimited service is available only as an add-on for customers of Northwestel’s Internet 50, 125, and 250 packages, and costs $160, $200 and $250 a month respectively.
By contrast, $100 a month in Vancouver will get you unlimited internet that is twice or even three times as fast.
Previously, no unlimited packages were available, and no unlimited internet access exists outside of these communities in the territories with Northwestel.
Although there is ongoing work to improve services, internet in Canada’s North is of notoriously low quality and high cost.
“It’s a human right issue,” said Kristina Kraig, executive director of the Yukon Anti Poverty Coalition (YAPC).
Kraig said the hefty price of internet is a barrier for low-income people trying to access government programming, job listings and other resources, especially because the ongoing pandemic means many community-access sources of internet are shuttered or limited.
“If you don’t have access to these things, it’s another layer of exclusion,” said Kraig.
Andrew Anderson, spokesperson for Northwestel, said the company has a three-year plan to “extend access to high-speed unlimited Internet to every community in the Yukon and Northwest Territories,” but that the price of internet in the North is “regulated by the CRTC to ensure they reflect the costs of providing the service and are just and reasonable.”
None of the territories have a low-income subsidy for internet.
Notably absent from the new unlimited service packages is Nunavut, which has the most expensive internet in the territories, a long-standing issue which has come up again recently in the territorial legislature.
In Iqaluit, 150 GB with a 10 mbps download speed will set you back $100 a month with Northwestel, although the company has reinstated an increase in data caps until December 31 to help Nunavut fight a recent outbreak of COVID-19.
Cambridge Bay, Nunavut resident Sarah Jancke, 28, received a notice in August that her internet provider, Xplornet, would be ceasing services for several northern communities, including Cambridge Bay, prompting her to cancel her subscription and “scramble” to find a new provider. Although Xplornet later decided to hold off on decommissioning the service, they wouldn’t allow Jancke to resubscribe.
She finally settled on Bell, which offers internet through a wireless router and Sim card set up.
For this service, she said she pays $129 a month for 100 GB, plus $10.95 a month for the linkhub rental. There’s a maximum overage fee of $50 a month; once they hit that, their service is shut off.
Jancke says she and her partner sometimes also have to use “backup” internet sources, so they can avoid overage fees and service cut-offs when they have a data-heavy month. When her partner recently took an online course, they shelled out $200 for a router to get pay-as-you-go services with Yellowknife-based SSi, which costs $80 if they choose to activate it for a month.
“You literally have to stop and decide if you want to waste your data every time you go to do something,” she said.
Jancke said reliable, affordable internet would be a “gamechanger,” for her young family, and would allow her to play more games with her toddler son and take advantage of online health services and educational opportunities. She has relatives who live on the other side of Nunavut, but it costs about $4,000 to see them by plane, so being able to connect online is important, she said, but she has to think carefully before she video chats with them.
Jancke said she is lucky she can afford the internet, as there are many in her community who can’t.
“I think it’s such an important service for us to have it (in the North),” she said.
“It’s not easy to live here... having internet access takes you out of the small, dark corner of the world you live in.”
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