NRC and Canadian Consortium Launch Program to Address ‘Digital Divide’

This is a Mosaic of Canada which is made from 121 images captured by Canadian satellite RADARSAT-2. Credit: Canadian Space Agency.

Canada’s National Research Council (NRC) is working on a research venture to give rural Canadians better Internet access, known as High Throughput Secure Networks

To help with its work, an Optical SatCom Consortium was officially formed in September 2019 among NRC and 14 other institutions, organizations and small-and-medium enterprises.

The program includes three main focuses to improve photonics, according to a Canadian Space Summit description:

  • Better throughput (or ability to transfer large amounts of data) using technologies such as lasers, photodetectors and modulators;
  • Radio-over-fibre technologies to distribute radio frequencies;
  • Satellite communications, to create new and high-bandwidth photonic subsystems for low Earth orbit and geostationary orbit satellites. These technologies would be able to communicate between satellites, as well as between satellites and the ground.

“We are a country where there’s a lot of remote and rural regions where the telecom services are not as good as in the in the cities,” said Sylvain Raymond, a senior research officer at NRC, in a presentation at the summit in November. “The minister gave us the mandate to perform research to improve connectivity in rural and remote regions.”

The best technology for broadband depends on where an individual is located, Raymond explained. In urban areas, cable is the most efficient. Rural regions are better served with fixed wireless, whereas extremely remote regions (such as Canada’s far north) can only be served by satellite. Satellites, however, are limited in the amount of bandwidth that can be delivered over conventional radio frequencies.

“There’s currently not a lot of hope unless we we invest billions and billions of dollars to connect all these villages with fibre, which is probably not feasible for them to to catch up with the cities, so we’re trying to address that problem in the program. And that’s the challenge that the government gave us,” Raymond said.

NRC was initially surprised by the request, since they do research in telecommunications but do not actually provide telecommunications services – such as the large Canadian integrators like Bell or Rogers. But the department gamely took it on, starting consultations in October 2018 and holding discussions with 114 organizations across Canada, Raymond explained.

“The vision we came up with is one gigabit per second for every user everywhere in Canada,” Raymond said, which far exceeds the guidelines set by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) that regulates telecommunications in Canada. (The current standard is 50 megabits download and 10 megabits upload.)

The goal is ambitious, Raymond said, but this allows for technology advancements in the next 10 to 15 years – such as with quantum computing, which should make data transfers more efficient while increasing security.  

NRC has been given a seven-year mandate to accomplish this work, and has pledged to invest between $8 million and $10 million a year in support of it, Raymond added. This money includes $2.5 million annually to support partners through grants and contributions; some partnerships will also be in-kind. 

“We can’t do this alone. The idea here is that we really have to create a coalition of people to tackle that challenge,” Raymond said, which is where the consortium comes in.

This work is a considerable challenge for satellite technology alone, noted Ryan Anderson, president of the Satellite Canada Innovation Network and a representative from the consortium. The consortium has the ability to apply for federal funds that the government is pouring into rural broadband access, unlike the NRC (which is a government research and technology organization). That was one of the reasons the consortium was formed.

“What we’re seeing now in the satcom [satellite communications] industry is a real spectrum crunch,” noted Anderson, saying the technology has been moving to more efficient bands of communication (from C band to Ku band to K band). The challenge is as one moves to higher frequencies, you need a stronger signal to “get through the rain”, he said.

One way to address the challenge would be to stay away from using a single broad beam that covers the entire country. Instead, providers should divide the spectrum into several different chunks, shrink the beams down and reuse them to get more reach using the same spectrum. “You can serve more customers at your target service levels, with the same amount of spectrum,” he explained.

Another thing working in favour of NRC’s work is the rise of large satellite constellations, such as SpaceX’s Starlink, which would allow for dozens, hundreds or thousands of satellites to work together to deliver broadband from low Earth orbit. This allows for more options than the traditional support of a few satellites delivering service from geostationary orbit, he said.

“I am absolutely confounded at how fast academia and industry was able to arrive at a suitable agreement and get this consortium started off,” Anderson added, “and that is due to the hard work of all the members and participants and NRC putting that all together.”

About Elizabeth Howell

Is SpaceQ's Associate Editor as well as a business and science reporter, researcher and consultant. She recently received her Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota and is communications Instructor instructor at Algonquin College.

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