Today’s story is in two parts, but for the life of me I can’t seem to fit them together. The first part is about the raw power of innovation and the boated potential for change when change is overdue. The second part is about politics and how easily an organized horde of special interests can money-fuck the basic comprehension of economics straight out of any elected official’s head. The first part is an uplifting allegory for the wonders of the modern age. The second is a cynical indictment of… something. I don’t know, capitalism again probably.
I can’t square the two and it’s pissing me off because I know they’re related to one another, but I don’t know where one story begins and the other ends. I guess we’ll have to get through it together. Pick a spot on this old ouroboros and take it from there. Gotta make a few chicken and egg omelettes to see which one came first, if you know what I mean. I appear to be stalling. Oh well, here goes.
In November of 2020, Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) Canada announced on Twitter that it had granted regulatory approval for Elon Musk’s SpaceX’s Starlink low-earth satellite constellation to begin providing internet to people in this country. During the previous months, a Kenora, Ontario-based IT company called FSET had been working with Pikangikum First Nation on finding a solution to the connectivity issues that had plagued the 3,000 person community in remote Northwestern Ontario.
Now, some of you might be asking yourselves, “isn’t Kenora in remote Northwestern Ontario?” I know because that's what I thought until I realized that Pikangikum is a six and a half hour flight further up the map. So yeah, whenever I say ‘remote’ in this piece, that’s the kind of scale I’m talking about. This revelation also helps to contextualize the fact that, at the time FSET began working with the First Nation, “residents were only getting three megabits per second [internet speed],” according to Business Insider.
I don’t know what that really means either, but if I had to venture, I’d say low number bad, probably. The IT company had been searching for traditional solutions to this bad number, but ran up against long timelines and prohibitive costs. Then, a month after the (ISED) tweet, they were up in Pikangikum, Starlink satellite dishes in mittened hands. The receivers, which SpaceX thoughtfully outfitted with heaters to stave off Jack Frost, cost about $650/pop plus a ~$130/month subscription to the company’s broadband service trial, which it’s called the “better than nothing beta.”
Aside from being so painfully poignantly named, the beta allows any of the 60 dishes that FSET helped to hook up — with reported user-friendly ease — all around Pikangikum draw that sweet space-wave tonic into residents’ homes at a new rate of 130 megabits per second. If I had to venture, I’d say big number good. Here’s the kicker though: FSET CEO Dave Brown told Business Insider that those 60 sites cost the First Nation less than what it would have cost to hook up four “terrestial-based” sites. Feels like there should be an ‘r’ in there, but who am I to argue with Business Insider.
I think at this point it’s worth taking a quick look at the stakes. The difference between Starlink and the1980s internet that Pikangikum had been previously restricted to is the difference between accessing legal advice, healthcare and mental health counselling with a reasonable amount of effort, and flying in lawyers, doctors and, extra importantly, counsellors at great temporal and monetary expense. In a place with devastatingly high suicide rates, this can be life-saving. It’s also the difference between having good resources for the preservation of language, culture and history and access to secondary education, and not having any of those things.
While Pikangikum definitely provides SpaceX with Starlink’s most obvious and PR-worthy success story in this area so far, it likely won’t be the last. FSET has said it’s working on similar projects with other communities in Northwestern Ontario and parts of Manitoba, and at least six other Indigenous communities have sought out Starlink dishes, five through a joint Indigenous Services Canada and Anishinaabeg of Kabapikotawangag Resource Council pilot and one reportedly through starlink.com, where they just ordered a bunch for themselves.
Now, here’s where I get a little foggy on whether this is still the first part of the story or if we’ve moved on to the second. I am genuinely very excited that some of these places are finally gaining access to this basic human right (hope I get to write that about water someday) and in many ways also the current century. But isn’t it a little weird that we’ve had this huge problem, which is getting worse as the ravine between rural and urban internet quality widens and internet dependency deepens through COVID, and nobody seems to know what to do about it except have some cringelord sigma male American billionaire whose net worth fluctuates based on his Twitter feed swoop in and literally offer people a service called “better than nothing”? That doesn’t taste a little off to anyone?
Okay, we’re definitely getting into more solid second part territory now, because I think I’m going to start shitting on telecom companies. It’s almost a point of gallows pride for Canadians that our telecom companies are so disproportionately shit. It’s nice to have something that’s worse here than it is in America, because that’s hard to find and sometimes you just need to complain about something. Take a gander at the greener grass, so to speak. But when you take an objective view, these companies really are treating Canadian consumers like they’re a 1960s mining company and we’re Indigenous land. I’m not even going to back myself up on this, there’s plenty of research on it if you’re pressed.
One of the major reasons for the oligarchy of calculated mediocrity that is the Canadian telecom industry’s pungent stink is the power of its lobbying arm. Watching the CRTC try to regulate Big Telecom is like watching a haggard band of humans try to hold back a swarm of zombies in navy suits and bleached smiles at the World War Z wall, except at the bottom of the wall there’s a big-ass revolving door, and a bunch of people are just running back and forth through it, zombifying and dezombifying themselves depending on which side offers them better perks — the current head of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), Ian Scott, is an ex-Telus VP.
In the most recent embarrassing encounter between the CRTC and Big Telecom, the government reversed a 2019 decision to lower the rates at which wholesale providers of broadband, i.e. the oligarchs, could sell internet to smaller Internet Service Providers (ISPs), e.g. TekSavvy. This allowed Big Telecom to artificially jack up prices to their wholesale customers, including ISPs that compete in the same markets as them. So not only could they charge more for wholesale, but also avoid having their own individual services priced out by competition.
I’m not sure what kind of backwards logic the CRTC applied to justify reversing a campaign promise in such a blatantly pandering manner, but on an episode of CANADALAND’s The Backbench, The Logic’s Murad Hemmadi opined that since part of the commission’s mandate is to encourage the development of network infrastructure, they may have viewed slashing the 2019 regulations as an investment toward incentivizing Telecom companies to spend money on that infrastructure. The companies argued that lower rates would harm investment in rural and remote infrastructure, a thinly veiled threat against Canadians who were guaranteed adequate internet access by the government five years ago.
The thing that most sticks my wicket though, is that even if we agree, as politicians in Canada are forced to, that Capitalism wrangling is a worthwhile and effective way to solve problems, this shit isn’t how Capitalism even fucking works. One of the basic tenets of this carnivorous and grotesquely over-mutated economic system is that investment and competition drives innovation. The CRTC has demonstrated that they view investment at the expense of competition to be the solution. That doesn’t make any fucking sense.
And besides, there are plenty of other things they could be doing to improve the climate of the telecoms industry. A report by the Northern Policy Institute suggests that subsidizing ISPs (which, by the way is an actual investment, as opposed to refusing to regulate something which is only an imaginary investment) would be an investment in services across the country. Saskatchewan has a public carrier which directly competes with private ISPs. Or they could just fuckin nationalize the whole thing, I mean what are the telecoms companies gonna do about it? Gorge themselves some more?
So there you go: two stories. One of promise and another of greed, loosely joined together by the thread of dazed naïveté and camouflaged malice that runs through the acrobatic thinking required to view Capitalism and free market innovation as the solution to any problem which affects only a minority of people. Fuck and I was trying so hard to avoid run-on sentences this go round. Let me put it this way: Starlink is pretty cool and that makes me uneasy. The government shills for corporate greed and that strangely soothes me. At least some things never change.