'A good start': High-speed internet to reach 112 rural, remote Manitoba communities

Nearly 25,000 homes with spotty internet in rural towns and remote Manitoba First Nations may unlock speedier connections by next year as part of a joint $83.9-million infrastructure pledge from the Manitoba and federal governments.

$83.9M investment will unlock faster connection for 48 First Nations, feds say

The federal government has committed $83.9 million toward infrastructure improvements that will help bring more than 100 Manitoba communities better internet access. (Denis Rozhnovsky/Shutterstock)

Nearly 25,000 homes with spotty internet in rural towns and remote Manitoba First Nations may unlock speedier connections by next year as part of a joint $83.9-million infrastructure pledge from the Manitoba and federal governments.

"This is a very good day," Sheila North, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, said Tuesday. "It's still a long way out, but it's a good start."

The plan will improve high-speed internet access in 112 remote Manitoba communities with help from private service providers, federal Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains announced Tuesday in Winnipeg.

"We believe that in this new digital era it's really critical — not only for education for young people, for businesses to succeed in their communities and internationally, but also very important for health care," Bains said.

Nearly 25,000 homes with spotty internet in rural towns and remote Manitoba First Nations may soon unlock speedier connections as part of a joint $83.9-million infrastructure pledge from the Manitoba and federal governments. 0:59

He said the improvements will help underserved residents stay better connected and be a boon to education and employment in remote parts of the province.

Forty-eight of the communities to receive improvements are First Nations, 21 of which don't have year-round road access, the federal government said in a news release.

The federal government is committing $43.7 million through its previously announced $500-million Connect to Innovate program, along with $3.5 million from Indigenous Services Canada. The bulk of that ($38.5 million) will be used to bring fibre-optic infrastructure to 19,000 homes, while another $5.17 million is earmarked for connecting 4,150 underserved homes that currently have very sparse service.

Manitoba is committing $20 million, and $16.7 million is coming from other contributors, including $7.5 million from service providers Clear Sky Communications and RFNOW Inc.

First Nations-owned Clear Sky and three other service providers stand to receive more than half of the funding: Clear Sky Communications ($33.5 million), Valley Fibre ($10.3 million), Bell MTS ($2.7 million) and Broadband Communications North ($673,000).

The project is expected to get underway immediately and be completed late in 2019, Bains said.

First Nation partnerships

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott said the planned upgrades include partnerships with some First Nations that will own, control or operate their local broadband networks. One of those partners is Sapotaweyak Cree Nation, about 400 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg.

"This is a remarkable day for us and for Manitoba First Nations," Sapotaweyak Chief Nelson Genaille, co-chair of Clear Sky Communications, said in a statement.

Sapotaweyak Chief Nelson Genaille says better internet connection will open doors for those living on remote First Nations. (CBC/Radio-Canada)

Clear Sky will receive $33.5 million to deliver internet connection speeds that are equal to those in southern Manitoba, the federal government said.

That includes a $20-million in-kind contribution from the Manitoba government. As part of the agreement, Clear Sky will tap into Manitoba Hydro's fibre optic cable network.

"There is enormous potential in northern Manitoba," Premier Brian Pallister said in a statement. "Developing that potential is a priority of our provincial government, and to do that we need the tools to maximize our opportunities."

'Mercy of the environment'

Genaille said the patchwork of internet services in some remote communities presents challenges unlike those seen in more accessible areas of Manitoba. Sapotaweyak doesn't have cellphone service or access to a local 911 emergency phone service, he said.

"There's many deaths that happen where if we had 911 we could've saved a life," Genaille said. 

Harsh or stormy weather also plays a large role in determining internet connection, he said. 

"You're at the mercy of the environment," he said. "[The connection] just basically stops."

Each of the 62 First Nation members of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs is an equal owner of Clear Sky. Once the new infrastructure is in place, Genaille said each AMC member will have an opportunity to form their own business to provide internet services to locals and federal agencies operating on reserves such as RCMP, Health Canada and Indigenous and Northern Affairs.

The ability to simply do email, for example, most of us take it for granted- Theodore Baschak

Genaille said a K-12 school that was built in his community a few years ago was outfitted with touch-screen smart boards in classrooms, but they've never fully reached their educational potential due to intermittent internet connections. Genaille said the technology allows a teacher in one location to instruct a class in another — hence its appeal to remote communities like his.

"But because of connectivity, Wi-Fi is fragmented and you weren't able to get a good, clear discussion," he said, "and you would see it in slow motion."

Shoddy internet has also meant some young students have had to seek certain courses outside the community, he said.

Genaille also hopes that with a few side projects, the new changes will also make cellphone reception a reality in Sapotaweyak and others that still don't have it.

'Work grinds to a halt'

Theodore Baschak said he is optimistic remote First Nations will soon have fewer barriers to quality internet. 

He visited nearly every Manitoba First Nation in his former capacity as network services director for BCN, one of the companies receiving some of the government funds. 

Theodore Baschak is on the board of the Manitoba Internet Exchange and formerly worked for Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre. (Submitted by Meagan O'Donnell)

"As I traveled around and experienced the internet available to people in various locations around the communities I visited, it became obvious why phone was so much more popular than email," Baschak, now a network architect for Daemon Defense Systems, wrote in an email.

"I think that if you don't have reliable internet, you're missing out on part of what is commonly considered everyday modern life to many people, especially my generation and younger."

Baschak said service varies widely between different remote First Nations largely because of the dated satellite service delivery systems in use.

"The ability to simply do email, for example, most of us take it for granted," he wrote.

"If the internet is out for a few minutes it's an inconvenience; if it's out for an afternoon, work grinds to a halt; and if it's out for weeks it could seriously affect a business. 

"If everyday email is a half-day or whole-day task, suddenly that makes it that much more difficult to get anything else done. It's no longer a background task that you can get to, it's a foreground task you need to monitor to get the page loaded."

Corrections

  • Based on information from the Manitoba government, a previous version of this story stated the Winnipeg Foundation was contributing $1 million in funds to the rural and remote internet projects. In fact, a Winnipeg Foundation spokesperson says that is not the case.
    Jan 10, 2018 1:00 PM CT

About the Author

Bryce Hoye

Reporter

Bryce Hoye is an award-winning journalist and science writer with a background in wildlife biology. Before joining CBC Manitoba, he worked for the Canadian Wildlife Service monitoring birds in Manitoba, the Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia and Alberta. Story idea? Email bryce.hoye@cbc.ca.