Northern Indigenous Community Satellite Network

Northern Quebec – Manitoba

Wednesday, 5 October 2011, 12:39 AM

The Northern Indigenous Community Satellite Network (NICSN) is an example of a jointly managed, inter-provincial partnership between First Nations and Inuit communities in northern Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba. Despite the very different contexts of these organizations, in one key informant’s words, through NICSN, “we are proving that the network can be locally and regionally owned, managed, operated and maintained”.

The ‘ownership’ of the network equipment, I think, is a very important point to make…In the First Nations we serve, the communities own and are responsible for their own network equipment (management, operation, and maintenance).

NICSN is composed of three organizations: KO-KNet in Ontario; theKativik Regional Government (KRG) in Quebec; and the Keewatin Tribal Council, which formed Broadband Communications North(BCN) in Manitoba. Due to different jurisdictional contexts and government structures, these organizations have relationships with different funding partners. The two First Nations tribal council authorities governing BCN and KNet work with the federal government to access funding for services like education and health. In contrast, KRG provides services to Inuit villages in the Kativik region through funding acquired from the provincial government of Quebec.

Despite these differences, the three parties built a shared satellite-based broadband infrastructure and connectivity model that serves their collective geographic region. In 2002, the partners met to explore different satellite network management models. The first deployment model used in 2000 involved partnering with Telesat Canada and their research team to deliver broadband connections into three remote First Nations (Fort Severn and Slate Falls in Ontario and Williams Lake in BC). The second model they utilized starting in 2002 was proposed by SSI Micro, the company that designed and implemented the Qiniq network in Nunavut and AirWare in NWT. However, starting in 2004, rather than work with an external organization, NICSN decided instead to establish their own community-owned and managed satellite network.

NICSN proposed one big network of 46 villages as more efficient and effective than separate regional networks…NICSN would share management, engineering resources, and so on, and would also enable local-level network management. KO-KNet would manage the gateway from Sioux Lookout…[but] each group managed its own local network gateway…We initially considered locating the gateway in [a large urban centre like] Montreal or Toronto, but are glad we didn’t: it’s really working well, and has allowed us to expand local capacity.

The NICSN network was built through two rounds of funding released by the National Satellite Initiative (NSI). In Ontario, Industry Canada’s FedNor program invested in the development of the satellite hub site, as well as in the First Nation earth stations, over the past ten years. In the first round, (starting in 2002) NSI allocated one Public Benefit Transponder to NICSN to provide service to public institutions in the 43 communities to be served. Building on an already-existing network operated by KO-KNet, the additional transponder space allowed Manitoba (KTC-BCN) and Quebec (KRG) to join the network. The group secured 36 MHz of satellite capacity (31 Mbps of usable bandwidth) through leveraging the Transponder’s ‘research use/public benefit’ requirement, which was a component of the government’s license toTelesat. NICSN successfully argued the resulting connectivity would fulfill the ‘public benefit’ requirement because it enabled the delivery of core public and community services. The group successfully secured bandwidth for 15 years (2005 – 2020), with 100 per cent of costs covered by the Federal government (Industry Canada) and Telesat. In 2005, NICSN launched “the first inter-provincial community-owned and operated broadband satellite network in Canada” (National C-Band Benefit User Group Press Release, 2005).

In 2007, NSI’s second round of funding enabled the group to expand residential access through the Government of Canada’s Strategic Infrastructure Fund. NICSN used this funding ($27 million from the NSI and other funders) to procure two more satellite transponders and the required earth station and local access network upgrades for the next 11 years.

The NICSN network is managed from the hub earth station in Sioux Lookout, Ontario (which serves as the Internet gateway and network management centre). To enable local autonomy, each regional partner follows its own network model (albeit with technology standardized across the network). These different support models demonstrate successes in achieving economies of scale, network efficiencies, and strong, long-term partnerships across geographic and jurisdictional boundaries making NICSN a sustainable network operation. That is, NICSN will be sustainable as long as the government continues to recognize the satellite transponders as essential backbone infrastructure that must be funded. The network requires government subsidies to cover the costs to access satellite bandwidth — if this is secured, the network can cover annual operating costs for connectivity. NICSN argued these satellite transponders must be viewed as one-time capital costs. Since satellite infrastructure (including the transponders) offers the same applications as terrestrial (fibre) infrastructure, it should be framed the same way: as a long-term infrastructure build, not an ongoing administration cost funded on a year-by-year basis.

Each region faces different contexts. For example, territorial governments have less resources to spend on connectivity than provinces like Quebec. But we collectively argued that the federal funders should consider satellite capacity as a capital cost for infrastructure — not an operational cost. We framed it as ‘space fibre’ that has the same properties as terrestrial fibre. The argument worked. We could ‘buy’ a transponder by pre-paying for it for 10 years, treating it as a capital cost, just like fibre. This helped establish more stable funding.

Levels of long-term funding for NICSN seem to be decreasing. One informant told us that the NICSN network is 100 per cent paid for until 2019, but they are unsure of its funding after that year. The NSI Round 1 funding was 100 per cent covered by government, and offered 15 years of secure access to the satellite transponder. NSI’s Round 2, in 2007 covered 75 per cent of costs (with provinces covering the remaining amount), and its funding support will end in 2018 for the two additional transponders. The latest upgrade plans, which Broadband Canada will start funding in December 2011, are only pre-paid for five years (and may be extended to a maximum of 5 more years), and the federal government only supplies 50 per cent of funding. In one key informant’s words: “The trend appears clear: lower funding for less stable lengths of time” (interview, 15). Furthermore, the way Broadband Canada’s application process is currently set up, each region must apply for funding separately, undermining the benefits of the NISCN partnership (such as economies of scale.