Are satellites the future of the Internet in rural Canada?

Trudeau announces $600 million project to connect rural Canada to broadband

The federal government is offering telecommunication companies subsidized access to a network of low-orbit satellites in an effort to increase broadband availability across the country, but questions remain over whether this will be a sustainable solution for delivering Internet to Canada’s remote regions.

On Monday, the federal government announced that the government will spend $600 million to gain access to a group of low-orbit satellites run by Canadian company Telesat. The government will then offer satellite network access to Canadian internet service providers — or ISPs for short — at a reduced rate, who can then pass on the service to consumers at a reasonable price.

If granted access to the Telesat network of satellites, an ISP must pass on the service to consumers at 50 Mbps download speeds and 10 Mbps upload speeds. ISPs will also be “subject to reporting conditions,” according to an email sent to The Concordian from the Ministry of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development.

Questions remain over whether satellite Internet will be affordable for people in remote communities.

“It’s great to have rural broadband access,” said Daniel Paré, an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Ottawa.

“But if it’s priced at a level that doesn’t make it affordable for people, how much advantage does it really bring at that point?”

In the past, when the government offered companies subsidized access to telephone lines for rural communities, phone plan prices did not reduce significantly. This is partially due to the challenges associated with crossing Canada’s vast terrain. It is also because there is smaller demand in smaller communities, making it difficult for ISPs to justify reducing their prices.

Government officials say this is one of their main reasons for acquiring Telesat network access.

“Canada is a big country,” said Minister Navdeep Bains during a press conference on Nov. 9. “And our geography presents challenges to building networks.”

He said satellites will help overcome Canada’s difficult geography, but did not say whether ISPs will be required to cap their prices when offering satellite access to consumers.

Erin Knight is a spokesperson for OpenMedia, a non-profit based in Vancouver that advocates for changes to Canada’s Internet policies. She also expressed concern over the sustainability of satellites as a long-term solution. She said that, while a satellite network can be effective for covering a large amount of terrain, they tend to have a shorter lifespan than land-based infrastructure.

This study from 2016 suggests that a satellite’s lifespan can be hard to predict; it can change significantly based on its size and distance from the ground.

“Low Earth Orbit satellites can last for a few years, versus a fiber connection which can last for more than 70 years,” she said.


Graphic by @sundaeghost

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