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Imagine you pay $200 monthly for home internet (without cable and/or phone) and still get slow or nearly no speed. This is what happens when your online access relies on satellites, even for emails to a neighbour or when accessing content produced in your own community. Unfortunately, this is a reality for many people in northern Canada.

The application period for CIRA's Community Investment Program is now open and organizations across Canada can apply for a grant to support projects working to address issues like digital access, digital literacy and internet infrastructure.

To explore the issues around the digital divide in northern Canada, I talked to Madeleine Redfern, mayor of Iqaluit and president of the Nuvujaq Society, a not-for-profit society that advocates for improved connectivity in Indigenous, northern, rural and remote regions and communities.

Slow connections hinder economic development and government operations in Iqaluit

The capital of Nunavut, Iqaluit accounts for 25% of the territory's population and uses 75% of the territory's broadband. Iqaluit depends on slow satellite internet services, which hinders the territory's economic development and government operations.

Madeleine Redfern has been working with different levels of government, CIRA and the Internet Society of Canada to identify opportunities to improve the affordability and accessibility of Nunavut's internet. By looking into different options for improving Iqaluit's internet she says “it became clear an Internet Exchange Point was one option that could provide our community significant value.”  

An IXP (Internet Exchange Point) is a hub where independent networks can interconnect directly to one another and improve internet performance, security and resilience in the community. CIRA's chief technology officer, Jacques Latour wrote about the benefits an IXP could offer Iqaluit's internet earlier this year after consultations with community members. 

Infrastructure is the key to performance and cybersecurity

At this moment, there are no inter-connected networks in Iqaluit, which means any time anyone needs to access the internet, even locally, the traffic must connect to the satellite, which is expensive and inefficient.

Latour noted this in a blog post from last May. “If one person is sending an email - even one destined for a next door neighbour - it first goes to their internet service provider (ISP) or mobile provider, then up to a satellite, then back down, then routed elsewhere (often through the U.S.), then back up to the satellite, then to their neighbour's ISP, then to their neighbours computer. That's a complicated trip. It's slow. It's lengthy. It's costly. A solution is needed.”

An IXP would allow networks to stay in the community improving speed and making home internet more affordable.

 “We live in a digital world and not having those digital tools seriously limits our region and our ability to keep up and be part of innovative solutions. There's a tremendous amount of research that is done in the Arctic. There could be so much more if we had greater digital access and analysis.” says Redfern.

Latour also notes the cybersecurity value. “One of the biggest benefits, from my perspective, is security. Many people living in these communities do not regularly update their software and devices the way someone in Ottawa or Vancouver might. It's costly and takes too long, so they make the choice to skip an update and wait for the next - or maybe they choose to skip it months on end. This puts them at extreme risk for bad actors wishing to do them harm online.”

That's why projects like the IXPs and other initiatives to help improve internet infrastructure and access in the Arctic region will have great social impact for the community.

Funding available through CIRA's Community Investment Program

CIRA's Community Investment Program funds innovative projects doing good things for and through the Canadian internet. Infrastructure is one of the key funding areas, and CIRA is looking for projects developing connectivity services for regional, rural, remote and/or underserved communities.

Now in its sixth year, this program has provided $5.45 million in grants to date. This includes projects in Nunavut with the Kitikmeot Heritage Society to develop technology to help store and share Inuit knowledge and history, as well as a mobile mesh pilot project in the Inuit region of Nunatsiavut, Labrador. 

CIRA is accepting grant applications for internet projects between January 15 and February 28, 2019 and we welcome applications representing under-served regions across the country, including Canada's north.

If your organization has an innovative internet project that will help build a better online Canada, apply for a CIRA Community Investment Program grant at cira.ca/cip.