Bear facing North West

Another year and another NDA has expired. This project was very different from the Crumble project, whilst it was still in North America this time it was a civil administration in Canada.

One of the hidden problems for digital transformation is infrastructure. There is little point in moving all services online if nobody can access them because of a lack of access to wifi or equipment.

Digital inclusion is critical and takes many forms – from using existing civic infrastructure such as libraries and schools to provide access, through digital literacy to help people navigate the Internet without fear, to designing systems and services to be accessible and user friendly for those who may have access or communication difficulties.

However the problem faced by this administration in Canada was even starker than that. They had a large community of users who lived in remote locations scattered across 100’s of kilometres of forest, mountains, lakes and tundra. Many lived in small settlements with limited connectivity and very poor mobile signal. There was no way that these people could readily use digital services.

This was unfortunate as the per head cost of service provision for these communities was often 2 orders of magnitude higher than for urban users. This meant that the administration was paying as much to service 100 people in a remote community as it would to support 10,000 people in a town but could not possibly charge the 100 the same aggregate tax as the larger.

They had tried to rationalise service provision around the idea of “Service Centres”. A single office in a regional settlement would act as the service centre for all the other settlements within a certain radius. This worked for some services but everyone recognised that it was a costly and cumbersome approach to universal service provision.

Face to face service provision is very important, both for users and service providers alike, but it scales poorly and is best targeted to where it will most add value.

So the question which was posed was “How can we successfully and sustainably deliver digital services to our scattered rural communities?”

In the UK community initiatives such as B4RN have delivered high performance broadband for rural users but the terrain in this part of Canada did not allow for trenching and even using poles to carry lines was problematic due to snow, ice and wild animals. 

Using satellite uplinks was considered but the scattered nature of the population meant that this was only of limited use. The mean number of users in a settlement might be enough to justify the cost but when you looked at the mode instead it was clear that most people lived in very small clusters with the average tilted by the few major towns.

So if it was not possible for people to go to where the service was, how about bringing the service to the people instead? Some kind of mobile access points.

So the solution needed to be mobile. But it needed to be rugged so as to avoid issues with terrain and climate. It needed to be low maintenance, for the same reasons. And it needed to be self-sustaining.

These days one might look at solar powered drones as an option but that technology did not exist at the time.

So we needed a transport mechanism that could carry a solar powered satellite base station, a wifi repeater, a battery pack and do so across the roughest terrain in Canada.

This is where I repeated a mistake. I jokingly remarked that it sounded like a job for a bear…

So Project Kanya’kwari was set in train.

Two juvenile black bears were selected and a special harness was made for each bear to trial.

The young male, Ehnita, was dubious at first but a combination of food and ear skritches persuaded him to wear the kitted out harness.

The young female, Wisk, was readily persuaded once she had seen how Ehnita had got used to the harness.

Each day, the bears were taken out into the woods which surrounded the remote test station where we were working. 

There are few sensations like walking through the Canadian forest with two bears by your side. There is an odd feeling that falls over one deep in the forest. A strange mixture of utter freedom, as though one were surrounded above and around by infinity itself, and claustrophobia, as the trees close in and distort sight.

It gave me a better understanding of the deep power of the numinous and how it can drive behaviour. I am not sure that the human mind can abide much exposure to those deeps.

Once the bears were comfortable with the harnesses and we had proved that the technology worked we decided to take the bears deeper into the forest and let them roam free for a few days. The satellite uplink meant that we would always be able to track them and could retrieve them at the end of the trial.

The first day, we released Ehnita and Wisk into the forest, about 60km from the camp. It had been a long and arduous trek out to the release site so we checked the tech and made our way back to camp just as night fell.

The second day we sat in the hut we had jokingly called “Mission Control” and monitored the bears. The uplink from each of the bears was strong and we tracked the two signals as the bears moved through the ever denser forest.

By the fourth day we had gained a good understanding of the way the bears travelled and the coverage looked good. 

On the fifth day the major funders of the project took over for the day. The administration had limited funding so they had partnered with a defence technology company who were working on ways to communicate with missile submarines at sea.

Radio waves do not travel well through water so communication with submarines is difficult, expensive and unreliable. Not what you want when it comes to a nuclear deterrent.

One way of communicating is through Extremely Low Frequency radio waves but these require facilities the size of a city, huge amounts of power and can only communicate very small amounts of information.

The defence tech company had an idea of using a vast mesh network instead to communicate instead. Instead of a facility the size of a city, why not use a city? Use the mobile network as the communication grid, piggyback off of the mobiles people are using.

“Security” meant that they wanted to test the idea on a very small scale in a remote location. So they had funded the service access trial provided we allowed them to fit the bears each with a prototype submarine mesh communication device.

It seemed a deal worth taking so on the fifth day we switched off the satellite uplink and temporarily lost track of Ehnita and Wisk.

We were barred from the site while the company carried out their tests so we spent the time writing up notes and reviewing our interim findings.

That evening the people from the defence company seemed very excited, it appeared that the testing had gone even better than expected. I overheard one say, “Even local Gold Code storage worked.” before they were hurriedly hushed by colleagues. They all left that night and I never saw them again.

The next day we turned the satellite uplinks back on. However there was no signal from either bear. Despite repeated efforts we could not restore communications with the bears.

We headed into the forest and searched for days. Once we did see Wisk in the distance but she ran off before we could get close. As we finally gave up and headed back, I turned one last time to look at the infinite sea of trees and I saw Ehnita watching us leave. I waved but he just stared.

So that was the end of Project Kanya’kwari. 

Some time later I discovered what that overheard conversation had meant. “Gold Codes” are the launch codes for the US nuclear submarines. 

I know it cannot be the case but every now and then I find myself wondering if there are two bears still wandering the Canadian forest with the keys to the American nuclear arsenal.

Best to take no chances. I am always very polite to every bear I meet. You may wish to do the same.

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