News, views and commentary from the telecoms sector across emerging markets and developing countries worldwide

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Bridging the digital divide that can exist in the world's most affluent countries: news from Kuujjuaq

The regions most often covered by this blog are Africa, South Asia and SE Asia - quite predictable given the remit of rounding up news about the strategies of telecoms companies in developing countries and emerging markets worldwide. Some of the most enjoyable articles to write have been those discussing to what degree and in which ways telecoms technology is able to alleviate poverty and improve lives in these part of the word.

I had not imagined, then, that I would ever write an article here about something happening in North America. That, however, is precisely what I feel compelled to do today, albeit with reference to a part of that continent obscure enough for me not to have heard of it before now.

Thanks to my fancy being tickled by the comic touch of a nicely opportunistic headline writer at TeleGeography, I now know just a little more about Nunavik, a vast territory (larger than California) which is located in the northernmost part of the Canadian province of Quebec. This huge area has fewer than 12,000 inhabitants, 90% of whom are indigenous Inuit people.

The wackily-titled TeleGeography piece tells us that the small population centres of Nunavik are set to be covered by a CDMA mobile network by the end of this year. Driving this project is Lynx Mobility, a communications enterprise whose core business is the delivery of cellular services to remote communities, with satellite backhaul deployed throughout. According to the Lynx Mobility website, the company's approach encourages local ownership of assets, with the communities controlling and branding their own cellular services. The aim is for this to create local employment, training and new skills.

I was struck at how closely this language resembles a lot of what its written about the benefits of mobile communications in developing countres, which I find interesting when I consider that Canada is among the world's wealthier nations, with a nominal GDP per capita which ranks 18th in the world.

The remote villages of Nunavik, it seems, do not enjoy the general level of prosperity for which Canada is known. Charlie Watt, a Senator representing the region, arguing that Nunavik residents pay excessively high sales taxes, believes that his constituents endure a state of relative poverty serious enough to create social problems and alienation. A recent article from Nunatsiaq News, a newspaper which serves Nunavik and the neighbouring Nunavut region, supports this view, stating that 30% of Nunavik households live in poverty - and that Nunavimmiut are up to three times more likely to live in poverty than people in southern Quebec. The sociologist from whose work this article is drawn concedes that similar levels of poverty can be found even in some neighbourhoods of Montreal, but he feels that "what is perhaps unique about Nunavik is the scope of certain conditions of poverty, such as the low level of education, the proportion of household budgets dedicated to food, the proportion of single-parent households, the high rate of unemployment [and] the statistically lower remuneration paid to Inuit compared with non-Inuit."

In numerous articles here and elsewhere can be found the argument that access to communications services improves the productivity and the living standards of poorer people in developing countries. To what extent this will be true for the people of snowy Nunavik is something I could only guess at. One thing that perhaps could be cause for optimism, however, is the community ownership business model of Lynx Mobility. I infer from the little I've read about this organisation that more emphasis is put on offering services to the previously under-connected than on generating significant profits. This ought to enable the provision of services at prices the region's poorer people will find genuinely affordable. This is all guesswork on my part, however. As ever, I invite any readers more familiar with the situation to contribute via the comment box.


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