Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Internet in the Arctic - the Early Days

I do a little work for the regional ISP in northern Quebec, basically signing up new subscribers and occasionally doing a little monkey work at the local earth station. Since December 2005 we have had a "broadband" service via satellite. I put "broadband" into quotations since the service is not really high speed as you would find in the south: at 128 kbs watching YouTube tends to be a frustrating experience as only about 3 seconds of data get buffered at any given time. It is akin to reading a novel where there are only ten words to a page and a dozen or so blank pages to thumb through before find the next page with a phrase or two on it.

To many of you used to DSL or cable links this might seem intolerable, but to me it is still a marvel. You see, I remember the old days of the Internet.

My use of the 'net in the Arctic stretches back over two decades, at least seven years before the World Wide Web even existed. This is back in the day when the Internet, at least for the non-academic public, consisted of emails which could be read only within your own domain. No attachments were possible either since only 7 bits were used in the transmission.

I was working for the Kativik School Board at the time teaching upgrading to adults. We had four regional centres and the coordinator at the time, Jim Deslaurier, got the idea that we could encourage communications and writing skills among our Inuit students by email, connecting the villages of Kuujjuaq, Quaqtaq, Salluit and Kuujjuaraapik. I was sent for a short course with Bell Canada on the use of their Envoy 100 email system, and we deployed Apple IIe's in the communities. Modems at the time were 300 baud maximum so the throughput was infinitely slower than what we now have today, but it didn't matter much since most emails were a few sentences long with no attachments.

My adult education centre was in Quaqtaq, located on the northwest point of Ungava Bay. This small community of about 30 houses had huge radio towers which were used (and probably still are) for transAtlantic aircraft navigation. Our access to the Internet was by means of telephone over satellite facilities provided by Telesat Canada. So powerful were the radio transmission, and so shitty was the shielding on the local phone system, that we always heard the "beep-beep-da-da-beep-beeeeep" of the navigation beacons in the background whilst chatting on the telephones.

The Quaqtaq radio beacon

This interfered with the quality of data received over the phone lines, and I was convinced that the whole Envoy 100 system was infected by some Tourette-like virus. The periodic beeps from the transAtlantic beacon would interfere with the data reception, resulting in periodic bursts of random symbols. Consequently, this became the norm for our correspondence:
Dear Nanuk:

Sorry for the 3248j;wdf delay, but I just got around to reading your last #$#UIHliahwf post. asdfopjP(&*_#(@4p8yhnakjf!~!!!! I'm going to take your suggestion and 32asd19)(**34$&^$@&. Thanks for your dfsu34*(&34 input.
This caused endless amusement as we ran through the various permutations of possible meanings. I even started to insert random characters into my emails for effect, sniggering as I imagined how the recipient at the other end would decipher the message. But back then, living in geographic and cultural isolation, I was amused by almost anything.

I am enjoying this reminiscence, and hope you are too. If you will indulge me, I'd like to do a few more posts on the evolution of the Internet in this remote location on the globe. On deck: The Source of All Evil.

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Blogger Fuff said...

Go for it. I had been imagining my own inserts to that messge too!

7:08 PM  
Blogger L said...

must have been a bit frustrating at I feeled terribly spoiled now

11:32 PM  
Blogger nanuk said...

Fuff: We all had fun with all the possible expletives which could be inserted.

L: A bit frustrating, but at the time and in the circumstances of extreme isolation it was like a door opening up from the "real" world.

12:24 AM  
Blogger The Phosgene Kid said...

I figure the electrons would freeze before they got very far. Besides I though you guys used mirrors to signal back and forth.

10:57 PM  
Blogger The Phosgene Kid said...

Remember Bulletin Boards??

11:51 AM  
Blogger c'est moi said...

Hey Nuk,

Thought you'd like to know that tower is still there. Now it occassionally plays havoc with my cordless phone as I get morse code or something off it; especially while calling long distance. I even saw a pile of fellows working on it last August. I have assumed, since that sighting, that it still be active.

5:53 PM  
Blogger Fuff said...


7:59 PM  
Blogger The Wrath of Dawn said...

I did indeed enjoy your reminiscence and look forward to the second installment. Evil! I hope there's wrath as well.

7:20 PM  

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