Behind SSi Micro’s Kanata office, two satellites point to the sky, one housed in an inflated protective globe. The signals they receive come from some of Canada’s most remote northern communities.
SSi Micro is an internet and mobile provider, with internet services in 25 communities in Nunavut and more across the territories. However, it was actually founded before the internet – Jeff Philipp and his wife Stef started SSi Micro in 1990 as a small computer seller out of the Snowshoe Inn in Fort Providence, N.W.T.
The operation grew, and its first broadband satellite network was launched in five communities in 1998. That became Qiniq, SSi Micro’s internet service provider.
“We’ve been first at a lot of things,” says communications manager David Veniot. Providing broadband to the Arctic is still a new frontier.
The next frontier is mobile. Now, SSi Micro is rolling out cellular services to the communities it serves, with the goal of completing the project by the end of 2018.
The Kanata location opened in 2012, and has since grown to house more employees than the Yellowknife headquarters. It’s a state-of-the-art teleport facility, as well as an engineering office and network monitoring centre. The Kanata location employs a diverse set of people, many of whom had never been to the North until they joined SSi Micro.
Part of the Kanata location’s appeal is its proximity to the federal government, says chief development officer Dean Proctor. SSi Micro works closely with regulatory bodies and government organizations that subsidize some of its work. Its main competitor is Northwestel, owned by Bell, which is now starting to roll out mobile services in some of the same communities Qiniq operates in.
Veniot says the meaning of Qiniq is about more than just internet, something often taken for granted elsewhere in Canada. Bringing connectivity to these communities had an immediate and positive impact on education, health care and business. Schools can now access online educational resources; health-care providers have improved access to up-to-date research; and small businesses started to use Facebook and email to reach more customers, allowing them to expand their client base and use digital tools to coordinate product deliveries.
SSi Micro also started a program in partnership with Cisco called Connected North. Using the same high-definition telepresence units that link the Kanata and Yellowknife boardrooms, they connected classrooms with educators from around the world. Attendance rates spiked almost immediately, and Proctor says they’ve stayed high, resulting in better grades and graduation rates.
With the addition of mobile, Proctor says the impact is just as strong, especially for the younger population.
“You’re bringing in a product – mobile service – to a community that’s never had it before,” he says. “They know what they’re missing, and when it arrives, it’s extremely gratifying to see.”
The meaning of this work is not lost on the people who work at SSi Micro, even those who are based in Kanata, almost 5,000 kilometres from Yellowknife.
There’s a huge focus on company culture, especially when it comes to fostering and maintaining a connection between the Kanata employees and what goes on up North.
Most of them have been at least once; Proctor spends one week out of every six in the Northwest Territories.
Part of that culture is SSi Micro’s mission, and the inspiring nature of the company’s founder. Philipp makes sure to stay connected with the Kanata office, and reaches out to every new hire. His passion for his work is infectious, says Veniot.
He explains that it was never just about computers, telecom or mobile for Philipp. It has always been about improving the Northern communities he cared about, and that mission is what has driven him to grow SSi Micro into the company it is today.
“When you meet Jeff, you get a sense of the company’s passion,” he says. “He’s seen the problems in the communities, and he’s got a really good idea about how to solve them.”
John Muise, director of network services, says having a mission makes it easy for everyone to stay motivated. SSi Micro puts a lot of effort into hiring a certain kind of person, based on three main qualities: Technical qualification, passion for the job and sociability.
“You have to have all three of those ingredients to be successful,” he says. As a tight-knit, hard-working team, Muise says it’s important that new hires understand the mission and are driven to get to know the company, both in Kanata and the North. Both locations have “clubhouses,” living-room-style spaces used for lunch, events and after-work socializing.
“The culture that they’ve developed (in Yellowknife) for working is what we’re always trying to imitate here,” says Muise.
There’s even a department for that: the People Person Department, or PPD, which has a hand in hiring as well as the events held in both offices. PPD employees collaborate for Christmas parties and planning celebrations to mark other religious holidays including Eid and Diwali.
Commitment to local culture
Will Ingarfield, manager of network services, has worked for SSi Micro since he finished high school. He visits the Kanata location a couple of times a year now that the customer care team is expanding. He says he didn’t realize at first how lucky he was to work for SSi Micro.
“We get a lot of leeway with doing what is right,” he says. In essence, SSi Micro will do whatever it takes to make things work for their customers. For example, some of the communities are what Veniot calls “cash economies,” often hunters or carvers who don’t have a need for the credit cards typically used for prepaid internet or mobile plans.
The customer service representatives in each community, many of whom are Inuit and/or speak Inuktitut, have their own credit cards so that customers aren’t forced to sign up for one just to prepay for service.
“We have a commitment to working with the local culture,” says Cory Wishak, director of engineering. Previously with Bell, Wishak sought out SSi Micro after some volunteer work in remote areas made him realize Canada had communities that were still under-served when it came to communications.
“We’re doing something for the very first time,” says Wishak. “That’s exactly what I was hoping to do.”