Report outlines potential of broadband connectivity
While the international Arctic as a whole faces a unique set of challenges, the Arctic nations must also deal with their own issues as they are manifest within their northernmost communities.
"The interconnectivity of people, communities, governments, businesses, and beyond is one of the hallmarks of these opening decades of the 21st century. Reliable broadband is necessary to promote and advance interconnectivity, which in turn facilitates improvements in national economies, education, health, and many other sectors of society. Despite these benefits, broadband deployment and adoption across the globe have not been uniform. One region in danger of being left behind is the Arctic."
So begins the first publicly-released work produced by the Arctic Economic Council. It's a report entitled, "Arctic Broadband: Recommendations for an Interconnected Arctic," which was compiled by the council's Telecommunications Infrastructure Working Group.
"What you'll find through the report is there are varying levels of connectivity throughout the Arctic," explained Arctic Economic Council Chair Tara Sweeney. "Some are more advanced than others. The need to close that geographical gap between our communities and our countries was recognized and how telecommunications, specifically broadband, can transform communities is fantastic. So, it became a priority of this organization to connect the Arctic and ensure even our most remote communities have the capacity to connect to the globe."
The economic council itself is a unique entity, related to the Arctic Council, of which the U.S. has held the chairmanship for the last two years.
"When Canada had the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, they recognized that the people of the north really needed a balanced approach to public policy within the Arctic Council and needed to have a voice for businesses to share their perspective with policy-makers," Sweeney explained. "So, the idea was born to create almost like a trade association to provide a perspective to the Arctic Council."
Each of the eight Arctic nations and each of the permanent participants, like the International Circumpolar Council, joined the conversation in 2014.
At that time, Sweeney was representing ICC-Alaska. When the chairmanship of the Arctic Council shifted to the U.S., she was named chair of the newly-formed economic council.
"The premise was not to be an annex or a subsidiary or an affiliate of the Arctic Council but to be an entirely independent organization," she said. "When I was selected as the chair, it really was a blank sheet of paper. I made a commitment to the Finland delegation that I would turn over a fully-functioning organization and so, since 2015, we've worked on really [solidifying] the foundation of the economic council."
It developed a handful of working groups, like the one on telecommunications infrastructure, which has focused its attention on connectivity throughout the Arctic.
In its first report, the group laid out current broadband usage by country, strategies and technologies that could be employed to increase connectivity, and options for funding future projects.
"When you look at a community on the North Slope, [improved connectivity means] you're talking about improved access to health care, you're talking about improved opportunities available to students in the education sector, there's e-commerce opportunities for people who may not want to go to Prudhoe Bay to work and would rather stay home and work," said Sweeney. "The possibilities truly are endless and I really believe the Arctic Slope region could be a region that develops the next generation of tech executives from the Arctic."
Among the challenges facing communities hoping to develop their communications infrastructure are inadequate satellite coverage, lack of a comprehensive strategy, a harsh climate, higher costs associated with doing business, and a human resource gap, according to the report. In some ways though, those same challenges mark the opportunities that could come along with better broadband access, Sweeney noted, like lowered cost of e-business and more access to online training programs to close the human resource gap.
For Sweeney, the disparity not only among regions of the world but among Arctic communities themselves, along with the opportunity, hit home during a conference in Belgium a while back.
"During that conference, I watched a video that was provided on one of the panels that highlighted a gentleman from the Faroe Islands who was a computer programmer. He basically built airports for flight simulation programs. It struck me at that time that the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic was an island economy," she said. "How were they so different than Anaktuvuk Pass? He was able to stay on the island and make a very good living and it was because they had broadband connectivity. He could stay on the island and connect with the world. If they can do it in the Faroes, we should be able to do it on the Arctic Slope."
The full report can be found online at arcticeconomiccouncil.com.