Community-Managed Wi-Fi Network Bridges Digital Divides in Fisher River Cree Nation

By Jennifer Leask

Better. Faster. Cheaper. Three words not always associated with broadband connectivity in remote villages. But a community-managed Wi-Fi network in Central Manitoba allows residents of the to connect to the Internet at speeds similar to people living in Winnipeg, 200 kilometres to the south.

Fisher River Cree Nation, Manitoba

Thanks to a start-up grant of $120,000 from the federal government six years ago, the Band bought equipment to connect the community to the main Manitoba Telecom Services (MTS) Line in nearby Peguis over a 2MB backhaul link.

Map of Fisher River Wi-Fi Network

Six months later, Stephen Krywenko was hired by , which is owned by the First Nation, to maintain this new system. Krywenko, who is not a member of the Band, was hired at first as an installer for the company, as he was already doing computer maintenance work in the community. He started tinkering with the system to improve its speed and capacity.

One of the innovations he introduced was , an inexpensive open-source network management system and . According to Krywenko, compared to the earlier Waverider system, the new network is faster and less expensive to install. He says that the open-source platform is easier to maintain and allows for the development of various applications.

“The Ubiquity system includes network portals that can be accessed locally or from anywhere in the world, through which we provide streaming services for the local radio station. These applications are based on open source and software,” said Krywenko.

He uses security and network management as other examples of open source networking applications that save money. Building network applications through proprietary commercial components can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. In comparison, he says that a Router built with a cheap computer using free open source software such as Pfsense costs only a few hundred dollars to set up.

Krywenko says that the open source system in Fisher Lake will have a comparable Firewall, NIDS/NIPS (network intrusion detection system/network intrusion prevention system), and other features that rival those offered through proprietary commercial equipment – but at near zero cost.

Another benefit of using open source components is the large and vibrant community of users who are willing to provide information and help. Access to such freely available technical supports make it easier for communities like Fisher River to build up local capacity to run their own networks down the road.

The faster bandwidth now available in Fisher River came about not only due to the adoption of the Ubiquiti equipment and other open source network components. It is also possible because the capacity of the MTS backhaul link has significantly increased since it was first installed in 2009. From its original 2MB connection, the backhaul jumped to 100MB today – and has the capacity to go up to 300MB.

To access the 100MB link that is distributed by Fisher River Internet Company through the community, the local organization pays a monthly fee. (Due to a non-disclosure agreement, Krywenko cannot share with us the amount).

In their homes, residents pay for and use their monthly Internet service the same way they would with a traditional telecom company with one key difference: the money stays in the community. Although Fisher River Internet Company was setup as as a business, it is basically run as non profit since the majority of revenues cover operating expenses and equipment and network upgrades.

People living in Fisher River benefit in many ways from the applications that the improved community network makes possible. Upgrades led to the introduction of Smart board technology in the school, remote learning opportunities, ), and access to electronic medical charts and telehealth services. Communication applications like Skype and streaming HD movies are a benefit for daily life in this remote community.

Krywneko admits there are limitations to the community network. For example, bad weather can mean a “flaky” connection. Some community members live in such deep woods that they cannot connect to the Fisher River system easily.

Due to recently introduced local competition, consumers now have several connectivity options. MTS recently brought a DSL plan to the community, offering $39/month plan (compared to $50 for Fisher River). Xplornet offers an $80 a month satellite plan.

While these options are available in the community, Krywenko points to the faster speeds, local employment, and revenue opportunities of the local service. Fisher River Internet Company also offers unlimited downloads – a rare service for customers in a remote community.

As with all shared broadband, heavy users can put a strain on the system, but it takes downloading 150GB a month before Stephen starts to throttle back their connection a bit. Given high demand for bandwidth, he said it is not uncommon to see someone downloading 300 – 400 GB per month.

When asked if this model could work in other communities, Krywenko told FirstMile.ca that Fisher River’s ability to access a backhaul link is necessary.

“You have to be able to get [the Internet connection] into the community first. Anything possible after that.”

 

This community story was reviewed and approved by Fisher River Cree Nation. It was produced with the support of a  from the (CIRA).