Internet champions help bring high-speed access to First Nations

Access to high-speed internet for rural and northern communities is back in the news, following a five-year, $305-million plan in this year's budget to improve internet services for 280,000 households and businesses. The oft-promised money is long in coming - but there are some success stories.
According to court documents, TDC Broadband Inc. developed a method and business model to deliver high-speed internet to households in Queens County in 2005. (Shutterstock)

Access to broadband internet services for rural and northern communities is back in the news, following the 2014 federal budget announcement. A five-year, $305-million plan aims to improve internet services to 280,000 households and businesses.

The promise of internet connectivity has been made twice before, most recently during Harper’s 2008 re-election campaign.

Follow the money

A series on 2013 federal spending announcements by students from the Carleton School of Journalism.

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Back in 2001, the Liberal government commissioned a National Broadband Task Force. The ensuing publication, “The New National Dream,” brought with it a goal of broadband access for all Canadians by 2004.

Ten years past the deadline, that goal still hasn’t been met. In B.C. alone, 26 First Nations are still waiting. The latest funding program is more careful in its wording, and doesn't guarantee universal access for all Canadians.

But while many communities wait, there are success stories. Last year the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency (CanNor) announced $279,000 in funding to allow the K'atlodeeche First Nation in Hay River, N.W.T. to install 12 kilometres of fibre optic cable. It was the second internet connectivity investment in the community, after an original injection of $275,000 in 2011.

The project will improve internet speeds while decreasing monthly costs to members of the community, said K'atlodeeche chief Roy Fabian.

"Any community can do what we did," he said.

CanNor funds about 10 to 12 internet connectivity projects a year, said Peter Rinaldi, the acting director general of operations. This can range from small hookups in communities to infrastructure overhauls.

"There's always a wish of what we'd love to see," Rinaldi said. CanNor doesn't yet have a strategic plan that specifically addresses funding for internet connectivity, he said.

The challenge with replicating community-based initiatives like K'atlodeeche's is they're dependent on a community champion, said Brian Beaton, a member of the 2001 task force and former manager of Northern Ontario's community-run K-Net program.

Without that voice, many communities in the territories are left to rely on big telecommunications companies like Northwestel. Those companies don't necessarily have the resources or local footprint to tackle connectivity problems with the same speed or effectiveness.

"If it's left in the hands of people in far away places then it's hit and miss," Beaton said.

Or, as Rob McMahon, a postdoctoral fellow with the First Nations Innovation Project, puts it, "How can we involve people who are actually affected by it?"

Sharing community stories

That’s something the First Mile project is trying to highlight.

The First Mile’s mission is to share online the stories of First Nations communities working towards improving digital infrastructure. Feedback from those groups can improve processes and encourage more First Nations communities to get involved.

McMahon defines a successful project as government, private telcos and communities working together on a case-by-case basis.

"If you have that ground-up approach, there's a chance to create economic development opportunities and improve service," he said.

Details of the latest broadband funding have yet to be released and the majority of the money won't start kicking in until the 2015-2016 fiscal year, with only $1 million in spending this year. Of course, noted McMahon, 2015 is an election year.

Arik Ligeti is a 4th-year journalism student at Carleton University in Ottawa. This story is part of a project by the Carleton School of Journalism on federal spending announcements in 2013.