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Growing the Internet 9 August 2019

Ulukhaktok: Community Networking in the (Far) North

By Katie JordanFormer Director, Public Policy and Technology

In June of this year, I had the great privilege of traveling to Ulukhaktok, NWT, Canada to talk to community members about the possibility of building a new, local Internet service network. As a result of these meetings, and the incredibly driven individuals I met with in Ulu, this time next year, Ulukhaktok will be the proud owner of the far-most Northern community network in the world.

I left Washington, D.C. in the throes of summer – upper 80-degree weather and so humid you’d feel wet the second you stepped outside. Two days and five planes later I was in Ulukhaktok, a community of about 400 people on the 70th parallel. Summer there is a little different, and I explored the community amidst summer snow and 24-hour days.

I spent four days getting to know the community, and it wasn’t hard to understand the deep sense of community pride right away. Ulu is a beautiful, U-shaped town on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. It’s filled with people who will stop when they see a stranger, smile, and ask who you are and what you’re doing. And every time someone stopped, I told them about the Internet Society, community networks, and what we hoped to help the community do.

On my third day there, I hosted a meeting in partnership with the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation (IRC) and the Community Corp. at the community hall to talk more about community networks, and the resources the Internet Society has to help Ulu get their own up and running. I was thrilled to see the seats full of community members from all walks of life. Some of the strangers turned friends I’d chatted with were there, as well as Elders, the mayor, students, and representatives from the Hamlet Office and Community Corp.

We spent the evening together over bannock and stew, talking about what Internet connectivity is like in Ulukhaktok and what the community could build to improve it.

The meeting participants agreed – the satellite service they have now is far from adequate. On a good day, you might be able to get 5Mgbs, but only up to your 40Gb data cap per month. But even at these slow speeds, the cost can be incredibly high. What’s more, the current provider only offers a bundled package in Ulukhaktok, meaning community members must pay for phone service too if they want Internet access.

The real kicker? Phone service isn’t available in the area through that provider. If you want Internet in Ulu, you have to pay for a service that is literally impossible to access.

Needless to say, the appetite for a higher-speed, lower-cost option is fierce. And so is this community’s spirit.

Ulukhaktok is incredibly remote, with vast landscapes on one side and even more vast ice and ocean on the other. For hundreds of years these people have largely fended for themselves and overcome incredible odds. They are smart, resilient, and they operate as a community unit. They have adapted and innovated with the rise of all new technologies – from improvements for hunting tools and housing, to the applications of electricity. This town has had no problem integrating their traditional way of live and modern resources.

There is absolutely no reason they shouldn’t be able to use their skills and traits to learn a new trade and become network operators.

For an area like this, a community network makes complete sense. These networks are “DIY” solutions to connectivity and they bring power, resources, and new skills to the communities that build them.

That is why the Internet Society is creating a new community networks training course along with our partners and experts in the field. This course will help teach community members, like those in Ulukhaktok, the skills necessary to build, operate, and maintain a network.

Over the course of eight weeks, trainees will participant in a series of online webinars, led by individuals in the United States and Canada who have already built or assisted with community network builds in some of the hardest to reach areas of the region.

Participants who complete the course will receive a two-day, hands-on technical training, culminating in the deployment of an actual network.

This course is for anyone interested in building a network. We really believe that everyone is capable of playing a role in the deployment and maintenance of Internet infrastructure.

We are excited to offer this course, but we’re even more excited that a pilot program in 2019 will be in Ulukhaktok.

The people of Ulukhaktok are determined to take control of their digital futures, just as they navigated their community’s fate for hundreds of years. We know their story and the network they build will serve as inspiration to communities across the region, and the world.

Register for the 2019 Indigenous Connectivity Summit in Hilo, Hawaii!

Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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