Yukon’s internet rollout could be a danger to women says head of shelter

The head of a women’s shelter in Dawson City says the territory’s internet rollout plan isn’t being rolled out fast enough and could be a danger to Indigenous women who live with an abuser.

“For some women it’s not safe for them to call our support lines,” says Jen Gibbs, executive director for Dawson Women’s Shelter (DWS), which is used by many Indigenous women fleeing violence. “It’s safer for them to message online about an opportunity or a time to connect or get information about our service.

With COVID-19 restrictions often forcing women to be home with their abuser, Gibbs said affordable, unlimited internet can be a life saver.

“If women don’t have access to a phone or a laptop this may create more danger for them.”

Dawson City is a remote town of just over 1,000 people 500 km north of Whitehorse and isn’t expected to be included in the territory’s unlimited internet plan until sometime next year.

Gibbs said at the moment her shelter is on Northwestel’s limited data plan, she said it’s forced to restrict internet access to the women that stay there.

“The unfortunate thing is we’re just not able to offer our Wi-Fi password to folks who are staying with us because we’re already paying such an astronomically high rate,” she said.

Gibbs said DWS pays $250 dollars a month for 250 GB of data  – a price she thinks is far too high for a not-for-profit with a small operational budget.

“I have asked more than once for Northwestel to consider creating a not-for-profit rate, and that it didn’t really make sense for a not-for-profit to be paying for business services.”

Gibbs also worries residential packages are unaffordable for low-income people, especially women in violent situations that need to access online services like looking up shelters, finding community supports and connecting with other women online.

Northwestel’s limited monthly packages start at $41.95 for 25 GB, while unlimited monthly packages are upwards of $160.95 – around double what most Canadians pay.

“It’s not uncommon we chat with our service users and they have to make a choice between paying their rent, putting food on the table for themselves and their kids, or having internet,” Gibbs said.

“Women having to make a choice for economic reasons to stay connected isn’t really a choice at all.”

CRTC aware of unaffordability

Tammy April, Northwestel’s vice-president of consumer markets, said high infrastructure costs and the North’s expansive scale prevents the company from offering unlimited internet for a price comparable to other parts of Canada.

“When we look at places down south, they have far more densely populated customer groups, and so they can buy far more expensive pieces of equipment for thousands of dollars and fully utilize it for the people in that region. That’s not always possible for us. That makes the cost that much higher.”

April acknowledged that the market is demanding lower prices, but said “there are some limitations as to what we can provide. We felt this was the best pricing that we’d be able to offer at this time.”

Last month, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), which regulates and supervises telecommunications in the public interest, launched a public review process for customers of Northwestel to share their thoughts on the company’s accessibility and affordability.

The process’s website states “Information collected will help the commission better understand the current issues and challenges related to telecommunications services in Canada’s North,” and “help us update the rules to ensure that services are available at affordable rates.”

The Canada Infrastructure Bank, which supports infrastructure projects in the public interest, announced last month a $2 billion broadband initiative that will help connect around 750,000 homes and small businesses in undeserved communities to broadband.

Gibbs hopes the federal government will eventually provide subsidies to low-income people.

“Whether it’s to apply for jobs, get information or it’s to submit a housing application, so much of our lives and the business in the day-to-day existence has shifted to online spaces. It’s basically what I would say is fundamentally a capacity to participate fully in the aspects of today’s society.”

Worth the wait

Yukon's internet rollout
T.J. Stewart is happy to be on the receiving end of Northwestel’s unlimited internet rollout. Photo: Sara Connors/APTN.

T.J. Stewart, who is Kaska and lives in Whitehorse, just recently got unlimited internet.

Until two weeks ago, his family struggled to use the internet without going over their data cap.

Between his online gaming, Netflix and his daughter Aviyah’s iPad games, the family of three often found themselves paying high overage fees as a result of going over their data cap.

“We had a bill around $200 dollars because I have a daughter and I had to lock up her iPad,” Stewart told APTN News.

A major gamer, internet caps frequently cut into the Kaska man’s favorite hobby.

“I think I speak for every gamer out there you can’t play one game in the Yukon unless you’re paying over. It’s ridiculous.”

Thanks to the rollout, Stewart can now download several high-quality games and no longer has to keep a watchful eye over his daughter’s iPad.

After paying (overage) for pretty much the whole time I’ve ever been with Northwestel I’m pretty excited. It’s about time.”

He said for those still waiting, it’s worth it.

I feel where they’re coming from. I feel bad, I really do. You got something to look forward to.”

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