COMMENTARY || Better Internet service crucial for Indigenous communities

Declaring broadband Internet a basic service in 2016 was only the first step. Authors suggest more is required to help remote Indigenous communities connect.

The government of Canada has devoted millions of dollars to expanding broadband in Canada. But it'll take more than money to connect all First Nations communities.

In rural, remote and northern communities across Canada, First Nations technicians are taking on Internet connectivity challenges themselves. Digital innovators like Bruce Buffalo in Maskwacis and Marc Awashish in Opiticiwan are climbing roofs and digging trenches to build local solutions, treating broadband as a community resource and enabler for economic development, cultural resurgence and language revitalization.

Money, distance and regulatory requirements are real but surmountable obstacles for Bruce and Marc. To thrive and grow, however, their projects need support.

From an urban-oriented business standpoint, connecting rural and remote First Nations is costly, with little to no return on investment. The societal payoff, on the other hand, is huge.

In regions without "brick and mortar" businesses and services, the Internet connects people to opportunity: to online services, health care, education and chances to innovate. With broadband, isolated First Nations connect to the digital economy, gaining more control over self-governance and culture. For private-sector businesses with responsibilities to generate profit for urban shareholders, those outcomes may be more burden than benefit.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) regulates Canadian broadcasting and telecommunications activities. It creates and enforces rules that telecommunications firms like Bell, Rogers and Telus-which run much of Canada's Internet-must follow.

These organizations often fail to consider opportunities that community networks make possible. And who can blame them? They are following CRTC rules and fulfilling responsibilities to their shareholders. We need to change the rules if we want to change the game.

With the CRTC declaring broadband Internet a basic service in 2016, the goal is set. We think three actions can support Indigenous innovators to help make this requirement a reality.

The first is changing rules around access. We need adequate, affordable, open access to networks. When Bell, Rogers or Telus lay fibre, especially if supported by government funds, they should offer communities the chance to buy wholesale access to connect local infrastructure to regional networks.

This is not a strange concept. In Quebec, a model is developing where excess fiber on public service infrastructure supports remote areas by allowing communities along it to buy into the network. Federal and provincial governments and the CRTC should enforce such a process. Laying fibre must be bundled with affordable, wholesale, open access requirements. This approach was envisioned in Alberta and the Northwest Territories with SuperNet and Mackenzie Valley Fibre Link, though affordability of the bandwidth and services remains a challenge for community networks.

Secondly, we need funding specific to community-based and not-for-profit organizations. These organizations exist to provide essential services. They facilitate a sustainable connectivity model in remote regions and should receive targeted funding, rather than competing with massive incumbents for scarce dollars.

Finally, government and the private sector must partner with communities. Not symbolic gestures, but real engagement. They should consult and inform every community along their route, and work jointly in network planning and use.

The will, desire and motivation to connect exist inside communities. What's missing is recognition and support for local projects with long-lasting economic and community benefits. This requires collaboration in developing project plans, establishment of priorities and bandwidth usage, funding proposals, relevant training, and supports for local technicians.

Infrastructure is the first step to connecting communities. However, issues around access, affordability and digital literacy further compound digital divides in Canada. Grassroots Canadian organizations recently shared their challenges with the Canadian Internet Registration Authority in a report titled The gap between us: Perspectives on building a better online Canada. In addition to frontline challenges, the report also outlines recommended solutions like local innovation and ownership.

This op-ed originally appeared July 12 in the Edmonton Journal.

Rob McMahon is an assistant professor of communications and technology at the University of Alberta; Tim Whiteduck is the technology director of the First Nations Educational Council, and Don Ginther is the information technology services manager at First Nations (Alberta) Technical Services Advisory Group Inc.