The Arctic's Internet Is So Expensive That People Mail the Web on USB Drives
In the Canadian Arctic, you get used to getting off on shitty JPEGs.
Sunset in Cambridge Bay. Image: Flickr/Alan Sim
In the sparsely populated Canadian Arctic, an internet connection with a one megabit per second download speed on an "ultra" home office plan can cost you $100 every month. For the people who live there, accessing the online services most of us take for granted means coming up with crafty workarounds.
Tiggatujuq is a 35-year-old manager at a land administration company in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, a tiny patch of buildings cast among the near-uniform white of Canada's northern tip with roughly 1,600 inhabitants. He asked me to use his inuit name, Tiggatujuq, instead of his given English name for this article because the method he uses to watch Netflix to get around the stark limitations of Arctic bandwidth violates the site's terms of service.
A screenshot of a text conversation between Tiggatujuq and a friend describing in brief how he accesses the internet, posted to Reddit last week, triggered my initial interest. In an interview, Tiggatujuq told me that he pays $100 per month for an internet connection with a 15 gigabyte data cap. For every extra gig of data, he pays $17.50. As you might imagine, that can get expensive pretty quickly. Only a few regions in the world exceed this price for entry-level plans, according to a 2014 report by the International Telecommunications Union: Kiribati, an island in the Central Pacific, and the Solomon Islands, for example.
"If you have unlimited money, you could actually get as much internet as you really wanted [in Nunavut]," Tiggatujuq said. "But I don't have unlimited money."
"You need someone in the South who has the hardware"
To get around these restricting circumstances, Tiggatujuq told me that he's set up a computer in his dad's broom closet in Calgary, which he can access remotely to download files using the internet connection there. He usually downloads software or system updates, which would otherwise take up a decent chunk of his monthly data allowance, he said, or Netflix content, which he told me he downloads locally using an app called Replay Media Catcher.
After Tiggatujuq downloads what he needs, his dad loads it on to a 128 gigabyte USB key and mails it to Cambridge Bay for just a couple bucks worth of postage. Tiggatujuq mails it back after retrieving its contents. This convoluted approach has been adopted by some businesses in Nunavut, which rent servers in the South, and Tiggatujuq repeats it every two weeks.
(If you're wondering, as I did, whether Tiggatujuq uses this set-up to download porn, the answer is no. He told me he's become acclimated to low-res JPEG images over the years of unbearably shitty internet speeds.)
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Over the past three years, Tiggatujuq claims he's saved more than $100,000 in data overage fees using this system, and he's even turned it into a bit of a community service in Cambridge Bay, since he often downloads things for friends and colleagues.
"Here's the one thing I have going on that not everybody does: you need somebody in the South who has the hardware there and is willing to mail a USB key to you every two weeks and back," Tiggatujuq told me. "And not everybody has friends or relatives there; maybe in other Northern communities, but not in the South."
Canada's domestic digital divide, with the North as its epicenter, has been a point of growing concern over the last several years. Much of the internet in the northernmost regions of the country is still beamed down by satellites, but a plan to link Europe and Asia with fiber optic cable via Nunavut is currently being negotiated by a Toronto-based company called Arctic Fibre. The federal government has so far refused to back the project due to fears of favouring one private company over others.
"From a telecommunications standpoint, it is the most serious problem we face"
Regardless, the consensus among locals is that something needs to be done about internet access. "From a telecommunications standpoint, it is the most serious problem we face," John Graham, the former mayor of Iqaluit, Nunavut's capital and most populous city with just over 6,000 residents, told the Globe and Mail in 2013. Tiggatujuq's assessment of the future prospects for Nunavut's internet was similarly dire.
"If you spend enough time here, you lose your naivety about what can and can't happen," Tiggatujuq said. "I don't think it's somebody's job to make the internet cheap for me, but I would really like… I mean, everyone would like cheaper gas, cheaper food, and all that, but that's indicative of a whole other scope of things."
The cost of the internet in Nunavut is indeed indicative of a wider scope of issues. The remote nature of the northern communities and harsh environment means that most foodstuffs have to be flown in, for example. A jug of orange juice can cost more than $26 in grocery stores. While the federal government subsidizes the cost of shipping food, the program has been called ineffective, and reforms are currently being sought.
Add the high cost of internet on top of these already straining circumstances, and you get the picture of a way of life way outside of the relative comfort many in the infrastructure-rich South are used to.
"I don't feel bad about it," Tiggatujuq said. "There's too many wonderful things going on up here to think that the inconvenience of expensive or slow internet isn't worth everything that's offered up here."
UPDATE 06/1: References to the price of internet plans in other nations based on a 2014 report by the International Telecommunications Union were added for context.
CORRECTION 06/2: The lede of this article initially said "megabyte," instead of "megabit." Now, those to two words sound similar, but actually are pretty different, since a megabyte is eight megabits. Take a BYTE out of computer illiteracy by remembering this handy tip. - The author