A PhD candidate conducting research on Haida Gwaii wants to know how the arrival of high-speed internet has impacted the daily life of residents.
Oxford Internet Institute PhD candidate Tomas Borsa has been living on-island since September 2019 while surveying residents ages 14 and over about what opportunities high-speed internet has presented them since GwaiiTel started its $10-million upgrade in 2016.
Borsa told the Observer he has been conducting 25 to 45-minute surveys interview-style, with questions such as how often the respondent uses the internet, if they feel the service is fast enough, if they’ve noticed seasonal changes in internet speed, and more. He plans to establish archetypes and outliers based on the initial surveys, and follow up with those respondents by conducting longer-form interviews as needed.
Ultimately, he hopes to offer a summary report to the Council of the Haida Nation and ask for input, and then publish the research as a book.
Originally from Saskatoon, Borsa said he first came to Haida Gwaii six years ago while filming a documentary on the Northern Gateway pipeline. After that, he kept coming back.
“I was attracted to Haida Gwaii and exploring the history of its internet infrastructure, and the things that people are doing with the internet here despite having pretty challenging circumstances from an engineering standpoint,” he said. “This is just about as challenging as it gets.”
For one, Borsa noted the “sheer distance from what’s serving internet connectivity.”
The radio link that serves internet to Haida Gwaii is on Mount Hayes, near Prince Rupert. At about 125 kilometres over the Hecate Strait, he said, it is “the longest radio link in the world.”
“With each passing kilometre the signal is degrading,” he said, adding that it gets more difficult to perfectly line up the submitting and receiving ends. “Try to think about hitting a laser pointer onto a small target.”
Other challenges include the atmospheric conditions, wetness and rugged terrain.
“As soon as you have any sort of cloud cover and lingering moisture in the air, that is also going to make the signal challenging,” he said, adding that strong winds tend to do damage. “Every possible physical environmental factor that could be complicating is here.”
In January, for example, inclement weather conditions caused significant damage to the radio link infrastructure and an outage that lasted days.
Another challenging factor is the small local population.
“Good luck convincing a big telecom company to invest $100 million to serve it with a fibre optic link,” Borsa said of the island.
Despite all that, he is quick to add, “Haida Gwaii has a really amazing, long history of local innovation and very, at times, hacked-together, but functional solutions.”
He cited Jim Pazarena’s network QCIslands Net, which was still serving about 700 customers from Sandspit to Port Clements in 2016 before being purchased by Gwaii Communications in April 2017.
Parts Pazarena was using, Borsa said, “frankly, they have no place in an internet network.”
“It’s crazy the sort of things he was able to retrofit and make work,” he said.
In addition to a clear interest in internet history on Haida Gwaii, Borsa is also looking to the future, wondering what effects ubiquitous high-speed internet may have on island life as more improvements are made.
“The internet’s number one promise is that it basically negates any consideration of space or time. You can get anything you want on the internet, anywhere in the world at a any time,” he said. “That’s cool, but imagine what that means for a place that holds place itself near and dear.”
Remote workers may be more likely to relocate to Haida Gwaii if internet speeds get better, which could introduce a demographic shift.
“You have to wonder what that does to the value of land and properties when comparatively affluent off-islanders start buying up everything,” he said.
And while it is unlikely that local leadership — not to mention the earthquakes —would allow Haida Gwaii to become overrun with off-island data centres, Borsa said demographic shifts may still take place for other reasons.
“Maybe young people who move away, perhaps for education, or to travel, would be more likely to come back because they feel more likely to keep the life they made off-island intact.”
For more information about Borsa’s research or to participate, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or text or call 1-306-290-7124. Participants will be entered to win a $500 Co-op gift card.
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