ARCHIVED - Weaving broadband into our cultural fabric

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January 09, 2009— Ottawa, Ontario

Canada is famously vast. Yet much of our 33 million-odd population lives less than 160 kilometres from the American border, more than three-quarters of whom live in cities. And our population thins the further north you go.

In the three northern territories, only 100,000 people are spread over 40 percent of Canada's land area. Our provinces' northern populations are similarly sparse. Yet the North's tiny remote and rural settlements are gaining importance as current issues such as the thawing Northwest Passage, disputed international boundaries and the need for sustainable management of natural resources raise strategic questions for Canada.

Dr. Susan O'Donnell conducts a video content analysis at NRC's e-Citizen Studio in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Research on archived video of group events can reveal social interactions and technology needs that were not apparent in real-time observations.

Dr. Susan O'Donnell conducts a video content analysis at NRC's e-Citizen Studio in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Research on archived video of group events can reveal social interactions and technology needs that were not apparent in real-time observations.

"We have to find better ways to support and grow remote and northern communities, if we're serious about maintaining population there," says Dr. Susan O'Donnell, a social scientist specializing in digital communications at the NRC Institute for Information Technology in New Brunswick. "We can't have a country that's populated just by growing urban centres, with nothing between. It doesn't work for a lot of reasons."

Small communities can be beautiful, yet they lack basic education opportunities and health services. However, NRC research is helping dozens of northern communities learn how to adapt high-quality two-way and multi-participant videoconferencing and online video sharing to improve their lives. Now, they're using broadband tools to talk with each other and the world, develop sustainable communities, improve their quality of life, and, in Indigenous communities, build self-determination across and between regions.

The basic videoconferencing technology looks like one or more large television screens attached to a video camera and microphone. In a multi-point session, the picture on the screen is divided into boxes so that every participant sees and hears themselves and everybody else in "real time."

Map of multi-site videoconference event that brought 22 different communities from across Canada into one mediated space.

Map of multi-site videoconference event that brought 22 different communities from across Canada into one mediated space.

Broadband visual communication technology — first installed in remote northern communities in community health centres, distance education classrooms and First Nations' band councils — requires networks with far more bandwidth than high speed Internet. It also allows "get-togethers" that were once impossible.

For example, in remote "fly-in" communities, buying bandwidth on satellite beats bad weather cancellations or long journeys to meetings that burn money, time and aircraft fuel. And tele-health videoconferencing allows southern medical specialists to assist in high-risk births or medical emergencies when time or conditions work against reaching a southern hospital. Broadband networks also allow industrial development specialists in northern areas — such as mining engineers — to communicate in real time with colleagues in urban centres.

Dr. O'Donnell's collaborative research with K-Net (Keewaytinook Okimakanak) — Canada's largest First Nations broadband network — includes analyzing the effectiveness of technologies in communities and identifying innovative uses of technologies to meet community needs. Her work helps reveal patterns of social interaction and group collaboration among about 70 First Nations and 30 non-aboriginal communities in northern Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec. Her research partners include the University of New Brunswick, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, and Atlantic Canada's First Nation Help Desk, which fosters the use of information and communication technologies among First Nations in the Atlantic provinces.

So far, K-Net has used the research results to improve the delivery of broadband services to communities and document their activities to network development partners. Last year, the network hosted about 1,000 videoconferences for general community development and more than 500 tele-health sessions.

Today, northerners use broadband to access things that are taken for granted in the south, so leaving the region to learn or earn is no longer an imperative — which benefits them and Canada. "Remote and rural communities already have a far better understanding and experience of broadband video tools than southern companies or governments, and can capitalize on that expertise," says Dr. O'Donnell.

Her research shows that communities want to expand the use of broadband to share or save human resources, and to connect across regions while reducing their carbon footprints. Women and elders often use videoconferencing to compare and exchange cultural information, or share stories and news. And younger people use these tools to collaborate on and upload hip-hop videos that highlight their talent and culture to the world.

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