In Canada’s North, a Single Satellite Outage Means Losing Basic Services

No ATMs, no flights, no internet.

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Oct 3 2016, 6:03pm

Image: Flickr/Sebastian Kasten

Around 5 PM Eastern time on Sunday, a satellite providing internet services to most of North America went offline due to a technical glitch, the CBC reported. If you live the vast majority of communities in southern Canada or the US, you probably didn't notice.

But in some parts of Canada's sparsely populated North, losing just one satellite means giving up basic services like access to ATMs or a flight out of town.

In other words, life went offline before the satellite's function was restored on Monday afternoon.

The satellite in question was Ottawa-based Telesat's Anik F2, which first went online in 2004 and has a coverage area spanning Canada's northernmost tip down to the southern US. Most places in North America don't totally depend on Anik F2 for an internet connection, and have landlines as well as other satellites—even some of Telesat's—to fall back on if one piece of equipment goes offline.

Read More: The Arctic's Internet Is So Expensive That People Mail the Web on USB Drives

But Canada's northern communities are desperately lacking in internet infrastructure, a situation that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pledged to remedy. Some places depend on Anik F2's connection for everything. There is no backup.

"There's less redundancy up there in the North, and there's a bigger impact," said John Flaherty, vice president of business planning for Telesat.

"If you were in Southern Ontario and on DSL, and your internet went down, your phone line would still work because it's on a different provider. Up north, in some communities, the only access is through Anik F2. But in others, they also get service through Anik F3, and so there was no issue."

"The satellite provided service for telephony, and for commercial enterprises like bank machines. Airports use it for their air traffic control"

In this most recent outage, in places that totally depend on Anik F2, any service that relied on a connection through the satellite was down. (Telesat couldn't say for sure exactly how many communities were affected by the outage, or the number of people.)

"The satellite provided service for telephony, and for commercial enterprises like bank machines," said Flaherty. "Airports use it for their air traffic control, and any of those services would have been down." Some Twitter users also reported stores being cash-only as payment services apparently went offline.

The outsized effects of a single satellite briefly going offline in the North highlights just how fragile and sparse internet infrastructure is in the region.

Politicians have promised for years to close what critics describe as Canada's "digital divide." Most recently, Trudeau told VICE during a documentary shoot at First Nations community Shoal Lake 40 that closing the digital divide is a priority, and the Liberal government "starting to work right now on it."

But as the fallout from Anik F2's technical problems demonstrate, there's still much to be done on that front.

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