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Is This A New Frontier?

Is This A New Frontier?

Inuvik has always been blessed by its geography, which includes its proximity to major—but long idle—oil and gas. But its latest bit of luck isn’t buried in the ground—it’s in space. Can an economically struggling community cash in?
By Tim Querengesser
May 27
2019
From the APRIL/MAY 2019 Issue

I dare not call him Major Tom, but as Tom Zubko drives out of town, toward the airport, David Bowie’s Space Oddity keeps playing through my head. After all, Zubko, of New North Networks, is my space tour guide today. “If you’re at the North Pole, the majority of satellites come over you on every orbit,” he says. We are not in space, of course, but rather in Zubko’s silver Ford F-250, and today he has driven me to a satellite ground station just south of Inuvik that he helped build. Before us are four white dishes, arranged in a line like flowers in a sci-fi flowerbed, all scanning the horizon. Zubko points, excited: “That one is moving.” The dish, owned by San Francisco-based Planet Labs, is rotating—but so subtly that I have to squint to track it. There is a much larger dish beside it, and I ask what it’s doing. “Nothing,” Zubko says, with a frustrated chuckle. 

Nothing but offering symbolism, that is. Over the past few years, Inuvik has been quietly attracting international attention as a potential ground station for the burgeoning commercial space industry. The product is images of Earth, created by the exploding number of satellites orbiting overhead. And the market for the data they’re gathering is growing at a planetary pace: The financial services behemoth Morgan Stanley predicts that, by 2040, the global space economy will see revenue in excess of US$11 trillion. Of that, downlinks to bring the data back to Earth—like the dishes here—will be a US$219-billion industry.

Inuvik would only see a sliver of that money as another point on the space-industry map, of course. But for a town that’s waited vainly over decades for an energy industry to rise on the strength of its world-class oil and gas reserves, grabbing on to a piece of a whole new frontier is a tantalizing prospect, indeed.

So why is the sight of an idle dish drawing a chuckle from Zubko? Maybe it’s the red-tape. In 2015, Norway’s Kongsberg Satellite Services (KSAT) sought to add Inuvik to its network of ground stations to boost its downlink capacity for contracts with the European Space Agency. The company’s interest was natural given that Inuvik, at 68° North, frequently sights a majority of satellites that orbit the north and south poles. The town also has significant infrastructure, including a hospital, and proven track record in satellite data collection as home to the federal government’s Inuvik Satellite Station Facility.

But things did not go to plan for KSAT. Initially, KSAT had hoped to construct dishes at the federal facility, CEO Rolf Skatteboe says. But officials with the Canadian government site required costs so high his business would not be viable. “They had rigid requirements that you had to go in and build it to government standards,” Skatteboe says. “It would have ended up costing more to build a foundation in the ground than what we had to pay for [an entire] ground station in Antarctica.” 

The story could have ended here, but then Zubko stepped in. A lifelong Inuvik resident, he’s a business owner who’s lived through three booms and the bitter, business-destroying busts that followed. And he had an idea to keep KSAT’s proposal alive: He proposed KSAT buy a piece of city-owned property near the airport and hire him and others to build a privately owned ground station for the company. ˚

Remarkably, Skatteboe liked the idea and started pouring money into it ($10 million so far). Zubko and local contractors built the dishes and facilities on the lot, while Zubko maintains contracts with KSAT for maintenance and other services. A year later, in 2016, San Francisco-based Planet Labs Inc. invested in five more dishes on the site, now called Canadian Satellite Ground Station Inuvik. 

Then came more bureaucratic snags. Before KSAT and Planet Labs could start using their installation, they had to wait for new regulations—specifically for Canada to approve them under the 2007 Remote Sensing Space Systems Act. Officials from both companies told me, diplomatically, that red tape in Canada is much thicker than elsewhere. They aren’t alone in their opinion. McGill academics published an objective review of the Act in 2017 and largely agreed, noting it overly favours protecting national security “at the expense” of commercial interests, and its “cumbersome and difficult” process may push operators “to consider establishing their… ground stations in other northern jurisdictions.” 

Sure enough, in mid-2018, Planet Labs threatened to pull its dishes and leave Inuvik. It ultimately stayed, and just this year, light broke through the clouds. When I visited Inuvik in early March, Zubko was feeling like he’d suddenly won. Less than three weeks before, on Feb. 11, Global Affairs Canada, the federal ministry responsible for space, finally gave Planet a provisional license to operate. Zubko had to quickly dispatch an employee with a broom and ladder to clean the dishes, which had sat motionless for years.

Unfortunately, the KSAT dish remains unlicensed, but progress is progress. “When I looked at this I had no idea what it could be or would be,” Zubko says. “But I did know that if you’re going to put $10 million into an asset, two things are going to happen. One, it’s going to be here for a long time. Number two, it’s going to spawn some amount of work and that would be constant. I figured if you made even one job out of it, it would be good for the town.”

And so ends Round One for Inuvik and its relationship with commercialized space. The satellite industry is exploding overhead and will continue to for years. So what will Round Two and beyond look like? Some in the town of 3,200 are skeptical that satellites can deliver the jobs boost that Inuvik needs, but others see further than the commercial interests—into satellite technology’s potential to aid self-determination. And beyond regulatory hurdles, which have made for some lazy criticism, some even see locals eventually becoming owners of satellites, stations and research clusters. The idea turns traditional thought about the community on its head: Is Inuvik’s biggest resource bounty actually in the sky above? 

In 2001, when Natasha Kulikowski returned from Edmonton to the town she was born in, she counted 17 work camps for oil and gas workers in the Mackenzie Delta. She remembers 10 bars and six restaurants full of customers, and that the companies employing these workers made large investments in the local recreation centre. Today, as mayor of Inuvik, she says most of this is gone. The last year for oil and gas exploration was 2007. “Since then that entire industry has basically left,” she says. “Without the people to spend the money, we’re losing small business.” 

Ottawa started building Inuvik in 1954 as a new administrative centre for the region, partly because it would not flood, like Aklavik, which had been the centre up to that point. The site was also conveniently located next to an energy goldmine in the Mackenzie Delta. But Inuvik eventually charted a different path, and today, the public service employs more residents than any other sector.

Kulikowski has only been mayor of Inuvik since October, and says economic development tops her agenda. She notes there’s a bit of hope from the new highway to Tuktoyaktuk, which opened in 2017, and last year saw roughly 5,000 tourists travel through. A few new small businesses have started, she adds, including a music school. But that’s it. Resources are always necessary. 

That means Inuvik in 2019 needs something big to arrive. Consider the challenges. The utilidor, the town’s 18-kilometre over-ground wastewater system, is in the midst of a multi-year, multi-million overhaul. The pool was recently closed for nine months due to leaks. The fire hall is from the 1950s and needs to be refurbished. Worse than all of this, Kulikowski says, the cost of energy is obscenely high and the waitlist for costly subsidized housing has grown, again, by nearly 10 per cent in the past year alone. 

Can a satellite industry be a saviour? Sure, she says, but in a small way. In 2015, officials with Planet Labs visited Inuvik and Kulikowski, who was a town councillor at the time, held one of their tiny satellites in her hands. “We were excited because it puts money on the ground for businesses that are able to help them build their structures,” she says. “There’s New North Networks, who are there to keep facilities running, and the government site has created a full-time job in town. Any time we can create a full-time job, that’s excellent.” But Kulikowski adds that one job is not everything Inuvik needs. “The resource sector would create tens, if not hundreds, of jobs, and that’s how a lot of people look at it, in the short term. I think if you took a survey on the street most people would say that resources are the way we need to go.” 

Still, she says the bureaucratic delays on satellites have been bewildering and she hopes the process is fixed.

Questions about satellite ground stations and job creation lead to interesting answers. Zubko says he’s already increased staff at New North Networks as a result of the contract with KSAT and Planet Labs, and hired local contractors to build everything. Over at the government station, site manager Jiri Raska is a full-time employee and also says there are plans to add a second full-timer late this summer as demand grows. 

Meanwhile Skatteboe, who has worked in satellite ground stations in Norway since 2002, says it’s best to think of it all through resiliency. Satellites, he says, have created resiliency for isolated Svalbard, Norway, home to a major ground station operated by KSAT. “We now have a contract [in Norway] that goes to 2042. It means there’s a sustainable business that will support economic activity. I’m asked all the time, ‘How many jobs can I create?’ We started with three and now we’re at 35. You can provide a sustainable operation that can support the local environment.”

Fittingly, a 2013 “Mission Report” from an NWT government trip to the satellite ground-station cluster in Kiruna, a mining town in Arctic Sweden, noted the long-term stability of space businesses “complements the variability in the mining sector in northern Sweden.”

Another lens for evaluating the value of commercial space to Inuvik is future investment. Far above the community is now a constellation of more than 150 Planet Labs satellites flying at roughly 28,000 kilometres per hour in a low-earth polar orbit. Each one is the shape of an oversized submarine sandwich and about as big. Each one uses off-the-shelf parts and costs less than $100,000 and each has a high-definition camera trained on Earth. Planet Labs, founded by former NASA engineers, is now valued at more than $1 billion. Full of this cash, it plans to launch nearly 1,000 more satellites in the near future.

Given Inuvik’s position on the globe, the completion of a high-speed fibre-optic line in 2017 that connects the town to the Internet, its supporting infrastructure and the fact other locations like Iceland and northern Europe are already tapped, Inuvik fills a large gap, says Mike Safyan, vice-president of launch at Planet Labs. “It’s always been envisioned as one of the biggest workhorse ground stations for us,” he says. Planet Labs recieved its full operating license this spring.  

Consider some more numbers. Private space companies raised almost US$4 billion in 2017 and a further US$3.1 billion in 2018, according to a report from Space Angels, a venture capital firm based in New York City. Further, the group estimates the sector’s total venture capital take since 2009 at US$18 billion. In late February, SpaceX successfully tested its new Falcon 9 delivery vehicle for satellites and astronauts that will replace the NASA’s now-grounded Space Shuttle. (In April SpaceX sent an Israeli lander to the moon, which suffered technical problems and crash landed.)

Meanwhile, U.S.-based OneWeb deployed the first of hundreds of nanosatellites that could provide cellular connectivity for the remaining 2.5 billion people on earth who lack it. Even Toronto-based Kepler Communications, a satellite services company, raised $16 million in its latest round of financing. It will invest the money in support of its goal of launching 140 shoe-box sized satellites. Estimates peg private satellite deployments to hit 30,000 or so before 2029.

This boom should mean dollars for areas on earth geographically blessed to take advantage, like Inuvik. Every satellite requires a ground station. An industry report from 2017 estimates the value of this ground-station business is now at $100 billion, and expanding by 11 per cent a year. Evidence is everywhere in Europe. In Kiruna, at a similar latitude to Inuvik, the satellite ground-station cluster has attracted the headquarters of Swedish Institute of Space Physics. There’s even a hotel to host all the visiting astronomers and physicists. 

PHOTO BY WERONIKA MURRAY

Business, in the hard capitalistic sense, is not the only opportunity the satellite boom is offering Inuvik. Take the Inuvialuit.

In 1984, the Inuvialuit nation signed the first modern land-claim and self-government treaty in Canadian history. It’s still regarded around the world as a model for modern Indigenous agreements. A catalyst for the treaty was the potential for massive oil and gas development in the Mackenzie Delta and a pipeline through the Mackenzie valley. The Inuvialuit demanded, and won, a say in how it all might happen and who would benefit. 

Today, 35 years later, George Parkes, who specializes in IT at the Inuvialuit Regional Corp. (IRC), the administrator of the Inuvialuit claim, says many within the organization are enticed by the potential spin-off opportunities satellites can offer. Beyond giving youth a connection to STEM (science, technology, engineer and math) careers, the industry’s presence in Inuvik, especially at the Canadian government ground station, has led to collaborations between Inuvialuit and Northern Resources Canada, he says. “We try and work with them to try to leverage the presence of the site to benefit Inuvialuit.” What that means is Inuvialuit, as the land monitors in their territory, are able to ˚
use satellite imagery beamed down from satellites along with traditional knowledge to increase their presence and sovereignty, he says. 

IRC’s research department, Parkes continues, has grown in response, to three people. The next step is looking at spinoffs the satellite revolution might enable. “Can we do our telecommunications ourselves and not worry about an internet service provider?” he asks. He notes new constellation satellite tech, like that being deployed by OneWeb, could eventually allow the Inuvialuit to provide high-speed, reliable internet to their farthest-flung communities. “It’s something we’re researching.” 

Indeed, the IRC is working on a feasibility study with the Internet Society, an international online-access advocacy organization, and considering a pilot in one or two coastal communities. 

A day after my tour with Tom Zubko, I meet Jiri Raska from the federal government ground station. He unfolds a map of the globe in his Ford pickup to show dozens of satellite orbits in dotted lines converging around Inuvik. But rather than take too long marvelling at it, he jumps right onto what Parkes was talking about, unprompted. “My dream would be to put Indigenous groups in the driver’s seat,” he says. 

The federal station now serves Canada’s RADARSAT as remote-sensing program acting as a host for dishes from Sweden, France, Germany, Japan, and India. Without it, Raska says it would be impossible to monitor places like the Northwest Passage or the Inuvialuit settlement region. Collaborations at the site include Indigenous internships and even painting the dishes with murals by Inuvialuit, Gwich’in and Metis artists. Nonetheless, business here from governments is booming: RADARSAT is about to see a constellation launch worth $1.2 billion and the Germans and Swedes are almost maxed out, Raska says. 

We next discuss the perception many have that Inuvik has only one satellite site, the one that makes all the headlines, and that private business is locked out from the second. Both are untrue, Raska says.  “We have to look at this objectively. The private sector is able to engage at both sites. The difficulty at this Canadian government-owned site is we have an obligation to include the Indigenous people in everything we do. I think we’re doing a good job.” He adds there’s more than enough room for both sites, and that they even complement each other. “There’s great successes all around here from the community economic development perspective.” 

Whether by want or necessity, over the last three years Zubko became the guy on the ground in Inuvik determined to keep the town relevant for the booming satellite market. When KSAT called him and told him of their troubles with the government site, they asked him if there were alternatives. He knew their business might find eager reception in nearby places, like Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, and feared Inuvik would be forgotten. “This was the alternative,” he says. “I recommended they buy this piece of property.”

But this alternative has meant Zubko and his company, New North Networks, literally have tried to build a new way to offer space companies a ground link in Inuvik. It’s evidently worn at him a bit. While you talk with him, he shows frustration with the regulations and legislation. 

As we sit in the truck, I ask what this place could be, were all of these barriers removed. “There are people in Europe who will tell you that Inuvik should become the most important ground station in the world because of its complementary nature to everywhere else,” he says. “But, in the last two-and-a-half years, we’ve probably lost as much [satellite ground station] business as Inuvik has right now. I’d say this site would be double the size and so would the [government-owned] site if things hadn’t have stalled. If we don’t shut everybody out like we have so far, I think there’s going to be continuous growth in this industry.”

But paint me a picture, I say. What does that look like right here? “A mushroom farm,” Zubko says, grinning.