Alberta man brings affordable Wi-Fi to Maskwacis reserve

Bruce Buffalo built two internet hot spots for his small rural Alberta town to service residents that cannot afford cellular data or internet plans.

'You can't do things easily without service,' says Bruce Buffalo

Bruce Buffalo caught on camera by Al Jazeera while installing an antennae on his home. Buffalo shared the documentary with CBC and requested these visuals be used. (Al Jazeera)

Bruce Buffalo built two rooftop internet hotspots so the residents of his small rural Alberta town can afford to stay connected. 

"I just figured it would be useful to create a hotspot so people could use their phones," the Maskwacis, Alta. resident said in an interview Monday. 

Setting up the wireless hotspot wasn't easy. Buffalo configured the public networks with a couple of radios, antennas, external cables and a computer.

His hope is to make internet affordable for all of the 7,582 residents in the four Cree Nation reserves in the Maskwacis region. So far, he has installed two rooftop antennas in his neighbourhood, providing service for anyone passing within a 600-metre radius. 

The location of the hotspots will depend on which residents will volunteer their roofs, Buffalo said. 

Wi-Fi antennas being installed on the houses of Maskwacis residents. Bruce Buffalo said residents volunteer to have the antennas on their roofs. (Al Jazeera)

Connectivity is available through three different internet service providers, but Buffalo said low-income families in the region cannot afford it.

"There's really nothing available," Buffalo said Tuesday. "If people can't pay for it, they really won't have access and [cellular] data is just too expensive." 

The hotspots are owned, operated and run by Buffalo, He had been paying for the internet service out of pocket, with the help of some donations. 

Buffalo wasn't raising enough funds online until he was featured in a documentary. Since then, he said he has received enough money to service the town's two public hotspots for a full year, and is now considering creating two more. 

Limited ways to connect 

The two affordable options for Maskwacis residents to connect to the internet is through wireless networks or cellular data plans, Buffalo said. 

Maskwacis residents generally receive cell phone plans through prepaid phones costing individuals $50 per month, which he said is not affordable for most users in his community.

Even for those that can afford cellular service, Buffalo said it's "spotty at best" in Maskwacis, so more public internet hotspots would help residents go about their day-to-day lives.

"You can walk around, feel safe," he said. "You can't do things easily without service."

Internet speeds not close to Canadian cities

In Alberta, individuals are allowed to create their own internet hotspots if they know the technology -- but most get service from established internet providers.

Three internet service providers reach into Maskwacis: Xplornet, CCI Wireless and Arrow Technology Limited. According to Buffalo, the price of connecting to the internet in his community starts at $100 a month, a figure too high for the reserve's low-income families.

A spokesperson for First Nations-owned Arrow Technology Limited said the company provides internet service to only one part of the community because the cost of building a tower in the area was too expensive.

The company supplies internet to households for $65 a month and does not bill for overages, according to their website.

In December 2016, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), declared broadband Internet a basic service for all communities and said the country's internet providers need to improve access in rural communities.

At the time, the commission set the goal of connecting 90 per cent of all homes and small businesses in the country by 2021 with unlimited data services in their homes, community buildings, and on the roads. 

Standard internet speeds are 50 mbps when downloading online, and 10mbps to upload files.

CCI Wireless spokesman Graham Fleet said the provider offers wireless and wired connections to residents of the Maskwacis, but is moving away from fibre technology to meet the goals of the CRTC. 

"Fibre service to the home is a great goal, but realistically, will not be coming to many less dense areas of Alberta anytime soon unless heavily subsidized," he said in an email. 

For residents on the reserve, they can access CCI's wireless services for $49-94 a month and with speeds up to 10mbps - something that Fleet said is affected by the rising number of internet users. 

In the early 2000s, the Government of Alberta created the SuperNet program, connecting 429 urban and rural communities to wireless internet services.

The focus of the program is to connect public spaces to the internet, including schools and town buildings. However, Buffalo said these public spaces only have Wi-Fi on paper.

Bruce Buffalo gives directions to a friend while installing an antenna on the roof. (Al Jazeera)

"Most don't have it at a cable level, they just have wireless," he said. "The speeds are not even close to what they have in other Canadian cities."

Officials from the Alberta SuperNet program did not comment by the time of publication.

Buffalo hopes his actions will create a community-wide network. To do this, he would like the terms of the Alberta SuperNet program changed after it expires in 2018 to include ways of improving rural internet access outside of public buildings.

"I hope the government takes an interest eventually," he said. "At the end, I don't really have much of a say."

Buffalo is not alone. Initiatives like his are popping up across the province.

The Clearwater Broadband Initiative, Cardston County and the Calgary Economic Partnership are also exploring ways to improve Internet access in their rural communities.