Network operator, solar company partner to bring internet to First Nation communities


Network operator, solar company partner to bring internet to First Nation communities

About 3 per cent of Canada’s 14.1 million households (roughly 423,000 homes) didn’t have access to broadband at the end of 2016

WireIE Holdings International Inc. and W Dusk Energy Group Inc. partnered to use solar energy to power internet in five First Nation communities in Ontario. COURTESY OF WIREIE


Ottawa may be investing millions of dollars to improve access to high-speed internet in rural, remote and First Nation communities, but some aren’t waiting for the government funds to flow in order to get started.

Instead, they’re partnering with businesses that are developing creative ways to bring faster broadband to underserved areas for a lower cost.

One such case is a partnership announced this week between WireIE Holdings International Inc., a wholesale network operator, and Indigenous-owned alternative energy company W Dusk Energy Group Inc.

WireIE and W Dusk plan to connect five First Nations communities in Southwestern Ontario, including Chippewa of the Thames and Wampole Island, with a network powered by solar energy to reduce the cost and avoid the reliability issues of diesel-powered generators.

The pair already launched solar-powered infrastructure to serve the Wikwemikong Nation on Manitoulin Island. WireIE uses a mix of fibre, point-to-point microwave and point-to-multipoint spectrum to connect to its core network and sells wholesale access to the First Nation-owned internet provider, FirstTel.

“We’re delivering the same type of service you’d get in a metropolitan area to underserved markets,” WireIE CEO Rob Barlow said in an interview.

Barlow believes it doesn’t have to be so costly to build the critical infrastructure that underserved communities need to participate in the digital economy. WireIE is one-tenth the cost of a typical network, with solar energy decreasing its operating costs, he said. WireIE has not received any government subsidies and the First Nation communities it serves have applied for but not yet received funding, he added.

“They’re working around it by finding other ways, by working with guys like us who can actually do it in a cost-effective matter because it’s so urgent,” Barlow said.

W Dusk CEO David Isaac said this is the first internet project for his company, which builds energy infrastructure to help Indigenous communities become self-reliant. In conversations with communities he works with, Isaac said internet access kept coming up as one of the top three infrastructure needs.

Solar energy presents “huge savings compared to typical energy system installations,” Isaac said, adding he can monitor the energy systems via an app and handle maintenance and operational issues from anywhere.

As the world continues to shift into the digital era, Isaac foresees an increase in alternative energy sources like solar or lithium ion batteries. He believes communities will be able to rely even less on diesel, even up North.

“There’s also a lot of myth busting. In Canada we actually have a very good resource of solar power,” Isaac said, noting that colder temperatures reduce resistance and snow reflects light in the winter.

Meantime, Ottawa continues to invest $500 million through the Connecting Canadians program to bring people online. This week, Innovation, Science and Economic Development announced $60.5 million in funding to get residents online in 72 communities in Alberta and B.C.

“Access to high-speed internet is not a luxury; it’s essential,” Minister Navdeep Bains said in a statement Thursday.

About 3 per cent of Canada’s 14.1 million households (about 423,000 homes) didn’t have access to broadband by the end of 2016, according to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

Only 39 per cent of rural and remote households have access to the CRTC’s high-speed internet targets of 50 megabits per second download and 10 Mbps upload speeds, compared to 96 per cent of urban households.