On The Need For Improved Connectivity In The North

For the fifth time this year, I found myself aboard a flight from Halifax, Nova Scotia heading to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador (this time with Nic, my MSc student, and Dr. Jason Ernst, Chief Networking Scientist at RightMesh). As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, Happy Valley-Goose Bay was not the only destination for this trip. While we spent a few days in Goose Bay for meetings and strategic planning, we flew off to Rigolet, Nunatsiavut on Tuesday morning.

This trip to Rigolet has several goals related to the broader eNuk health and environment monitoring apps:

  • Nic will spend part of his time exploring methods of making the eNuk apps more engaging. This will include an open house where we can get community feedback on different elements of gamification, as well as a meeting with students at Northern Lights Academy. In the latter case, we’ll be running a Scratch session with the students and asking them how they would design an app for the community.
  • Nic and Jason will continue testing the mobile mesh network within the community. This will include some demonstrations of its utility at the open house, as well as further experiments to understand how it will function in Rigolet.

Of course, you might be wondering why we are doing these things. In particular, you might be wondering how a research program led by the community of Rigolet has expanded from monitoring health and environment to include research on the implementation and evaluation of mobile mesh networks.

While the answer isn’t complicated, it also isn’t comfortable because it speaks of a digital divide – a state of inequity defined by our provincial and territorial borders – that negatively affects many Indigenous communities. The day-to-day reality of almost all Northern communities in our country is that the internet is limited, bandwidth and speeds are low, and cellular towers are non-existent. Access is not the same.

Rigolet is no exception, and its limited bandwidth and connectivity are hindering the ability of the community to fully capitalize on the eNuk tools. Community members piloting the program are able to document health and environmental changes when they are on the land (e.g. hunting, gathering, fishing, etc.), but for this information to be collected and shared, it is necessary for the same community members to return to Rigolet to wire their mobile devices to their computers, and assuming the internet allows it, upload their data to the server. They cannot instantaneously share the information because the infrastructure does not allow it.

Ask yourself, how likely would it be that you would continue using Instagram, for example, if its use required you to wire your mobile device to your computer every single time you wanted to post an image? What would be the potential for real-time sharing? Now further consider how this might affect the collection of data that are relevant for the real-time monitoring of health issues, environmental changes, and safety conditions.

Clearly, this situation is not ideal. But this is the reality. Northern communities cannot communicate or access information in the same way that most other Canadians can. Even this morning a speed test indicated that I was able to download at a rate of 0.00 Mbps, and upload at 0.06 Mbps. These rates render modern websites and cloud-based tools useless. And even when the data rates are improved, they are still significantly worse than what other Canadian communities have come to expect.

Since Northern communities are not granted equal digital access, they can not contribute to or compete in the Canadian economy in an equitable manner, and they are not provided with an equal voice essential for active participation in a democratic society. Given that the Truth and Reconciliation Committee has recommended the need for improved access to information, education, health, economy, and citizenry (among other things), access to high-speed broadband internet becomes paramount in their delivery.

Of course, the information presented here is not new information. The Canadian government is aware of the problem, going so far as to declare in 2016 that access to high-speed broadband internet is a basic service. That is, all Canadians have a right to access; we’re just not quite where we should be on protecting that right. In fact, a recent report1 indicates that:

  • only 60% of Newfoundland and Labrador have access to high-speed internet (which compares to 94% in New Brunswick, 81% in Nova Scotia, and only 55% in Prince Edward Island), and
  • all of Newfoundland and Labrador is serviced by 2 or fewer Internet Service Providers (47% have access to 2 ISPs, 49% have access to 1 ISP, 4% have access to no ISPs), while 71% of Canadians have access to 3 or more ISPs.

The good news is that things in Newfoundland and Labrador are improving. By 2017, 99% of the population is expected to have broadband internet access (although the standard by which broadband is measured is not in pace with the standards for the rest of the country)1.

In the meantime, however, communities are still dealing with limited connectivity. In response, the community of Rigolet is leading the way with novel research programs that look to develop and implement new methods of connection. This is where the mobile mesh networks come in. To support the eNuk program, and to improve connectivity in general, we’ve begun the process of understanding their utility and performance. Over this and coming trips, we’re looking forward to continuing this work to improve the utility of the eNuk program, and to improve the connectivity in Rigolet and beyond.

1 Newfoundland and Labrador’s Vital Signs, Report 2017 – A province-wide check-up on the quality of life in Newfoundland and Labrador communities in 2017. A collaboration between the Community Foundation of Newfoundland & Labrador, and Memorial University’s Harris Centre.



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