Northern connectivity tied up in politics, red tape
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At the sixth annual Indigenous Connectivity Summit being held in Winnipeg this week, it was made clear that the ongoing frustrations that northern Manitoba First Nations experience in getting adequate high speed internet connectivity is no different than many other places in the country.
Mark Buell, director of Indigenous programs for Connect Humanity, one of the organizers of this week’s summit in Winnipeg (and a former Winnipegger), said First Nations across North America are often stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide that exists.
“It’s due to any number of reasons — geography, policies, access to capital,” said Buell. “But because Indigenous communities are generally remote with small populations, the federal policy environment makes it very difficult to get infrastructure and services built. Northern Manitoba is not unique in this regard.”
Many First Nation communities in Manitoba have to rely on notoriously slow satellite connections but even with less than adequate service in some cases there is a years-long waiting list to get hooked up because there is no excess capacity to expand.
Even when project funding applications have been made and sometimes approved, connections to the important Manitoba Hydro Telecom (MHT) backbone continue to be delayed.
That is what has happened to one project that Broadband Communications North (BCN), a 20-year old not-for-profit that is owned by six of the seven tribal councils in Manitoba, recently experienced.
Jason Neepin, CEO of BCN, said in one recent scenario BCN had funding in place to provide connectivity to Black River First Nation on the east side of Lake Winnipeg. But in the past month BCN was told by MHT that it could not tie in the MHT network five kilometres from the community, but instead would need to do so 40 kilometres away, adding $2 million to the cost of the project.
“The community was supposed to be lit up this month,” Neepin said. “I am going to recommend to my board that we abandon Black River, because who is going to pay for additional $2 million? We will have to leave federal dollars on the table.”
Among other things, federal funding like Universal Broadband Fund and Connect to Innovate, require the projects to be built before funding is dispersed.
“You don’t get the money up front,” Buell said. “You have to pay for the project and buy all the equipment and get reimbursed later on. There’s not a lot of northern First Nations that have a few million dollars just sitting around to spend and submit receipts and then a year later get the money back.”
The program rules also require that experienced internet service providers be part to the project, effectively precluding First Nation’s from operating their own networks.
David Kobliski, chair of the BCN board and the head of the development corporation at Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation (formerly Nelson House), said, “Why can’t communities do it themselves? It can become one of the biggest economic opportunities First Nations to generate their own sole source revenue.”
That community just completed a fibre-to-the-home project which Kobliski said is generating $85,000 per month in profit back to Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation.
Buell said that one of the driving issues behind the Indigenous Connectivity summits is to figure out ways to create more capacity to manage broadband networks within First Nations themselves. Among other things Connect Humanity runs Indigenous-led Broadband Bootcamps in the U.S. that provide the skills set to build a small network.
Neepin, who made a presentation at this week’s summit, said rather than progress the situation in Manitoba is getting more frustrating.
He said there continues to be ambiguous messages from both MHT and Xplornet, the company that won a request for proposals to manage the commercial elements of the MHT network.
Neepin said that the approval process for these federal broadband funding programs — essentially the only capital available to do these expensive projects — is based on paternalistic attitudes that prevents First Nations from owning their own networks.
Buell said another element of the current funding regime is that even if funding is awarded to build a network that connects to an internet access point — like the MHT network — there is no money available to operate and maintain the network after it has been built.
“One of the challenges in places like northern Manitoba is that there are lots of isolated communities with small populations and it costs a lot of money to build out infrastructure to those communities,” he said. “Laying fibre across northern Manitoba is no small feat. Even with subsidies from the government of Canada large private sector telcos would still be hesitant to provide service. There is no ROI (return on investment).”
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.