Nunatsiaq Online
COMMENTARY: Around the Arctic July 20, 2016 - 7:00 am

Making the connection: Why the Arctic needs broadband access

“It is the only way of ensuring our communities reach their full potential.”

SPECIAL TO NUNATSIAQ NEWS
Tara Sweeney, chair of the circumpolar Arctic Economic Council, at the official opening of the AEC secretariat in Tromsø, Norway in 2015. The AEC was created at a meeting in Iqaluit in September 2014 that was organized under Canada’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council. However the AEC is now a standalone body. (PHOTO BY INGUNN A. MÆHLUM, AEC)
Tara Sweeney, chair of the circumpolar Arctic Economic Council, at the official opening of the AEC secretariat in Tromsø, Norway in 2015. The AEC was created at a meeting in Iqaluit in September 2014 that was organized under Canada’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council. However the AEC is now a standalone body. (PHOTO BY INGUNN A. MÆHLUM, AEC)

TARA SWEENEY

In many parts of the industrialized world, from Beijing to Boston, you are able to read this column at your own convenience — its digital distribution as simple as a few taps on your smartphone or tablet. Even streaming high definition or ultra-high definition video poses few problems.

But for millions of others, especially those living across the Arctic, making the connection is much more difficult — if not downright impossible. They are the ones waiting on local technology to catch up to the 21st century and the opportunities carried along with it.

The technology is broadband, or what we commonly call high-speed internet.

Far from just the answer to bringing people closer to a glitch-free Netflix or Minecraft experience, broadband opens the door of opportunity across an incredibly wide ranging and diverse spectrum.

With high-speed internet, whole communities benefit through educational opportunities, safety measures made possible through better, more reliable communications and telemedicine.

And that’s just the start.

On a larger scale, broadband can mean a better way of life, economic growth and job creation. High-speed internet has been a game-changer, but far too many communities are still not able to participate.

Being from the North Slope of Alaska, I have seen how this negatively affects my region. A lack of internet efficiency disproportionately affects rural communities in Alaska, which experience nearly the highest internet and bandwidth costs in the world, yet still receive some of the poorest service.

A study in 2014 found Barrow residents paid more than seven times the cost of those in San Francisco for satellite-based internet that was considerably slower, lower in quality and noticeably less reliable. The same is true in other Arctic areas.

At a time when the world is opening up, the lack of reliable communications continues to close some communities off, even as there is an increasing focus on the north.

As broadband usage continues to skyrocket across the globe (the latest research shows worldwide internet usage goes up by around nine per cent a year), communities without reliable access to this technology will become more and more isolated — not just geographically, but also from the interconnected economy and society the internet brings together.

Expanding broadband access and adoption can be the lifeblood for economic, social, civic and political growth and connection.

But bringing this technology to the Arctic is challenging; this is true both in terms of logistics and cost.

That’s why I helped to organize the first Top of the World Broadband Summit in Barrow, held July 13 to July 14 in Barrow, Alaska.

Hosted by the Arctic Economic Council, of which I proudly serve as chair, the two-day conference looked into not just the challenges of connectivity, but also the government’s role in, and commitment to, broadband development.

We invited policy leaders, regulators, industry experts and government officials to attend. As dynamic as the internet was designed to be, so must be our range of open-minded solutions to bringing high-speed internet into every home, business and school across the Arctic.

Fortunately, progress is already being made.

Earlier this spring, Quintillion Holdings, LLC – an Anchorage, Alaska-based telecommunications company — began overseeing the construction of terrestrial as well as subsea fiber-optic cable networks in northern Alaska.

(Full disclosure: My employer, Arctic Slope Regional Corp., owns a minority stake in Quintillion.)

When complete, the 1,200-mile undersea fibre-optic cable will provide faster and more reliable broadband connections to northern Alaska and the Interior.

The Quintillion Subsea Cable Project aims to eventually link Europe and Asia with fibre-optic broadband cable through the Alaska and Canadian Arctic.

Offshoot points will provide service to rural Alaska communities and the oil-field complex of Prudhoe Bay, bringing affordable high-speed internet access to the Arctic for the first time.

Reliable communications technologies will only become more vital to modern communities. I see this as an exciting project with enormous potential and I look forward to monitoring its progress.

Looking ahead, I envision an Arctic, whether your home is in Norway, Iceland, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Canada or the U.S., that shares the vision of available broadband and is digitally connected.

It is the only way of ensuring our communities reach their full potential. It may also be the only way to ensure their long-term sustainability.

A version of this article was published July 10 by the Alaska Dispatch News. Tara Sweeney is the chair of the Arctic Economic Council. She is also the executive vice-president of external affairs for Arctic Slope Regional Corp., the largest locally-owned and operated business in Alaska. Headquartered in Barrow, Alaska, the ASRC is owned by about 11,000 Iñupiaq shareholders.

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