Ottawa Citizen: COVID-19 shows need to support Indigenous and non-profit telcos connecting remote communities

The following article was published on April 15, 2020. Read published article here.

by FMCC members Tim Whiteduck, David Paul Achneepineskum, Sally Braun, Bill Murdoch, Ken Sanderson, and Rob McMahon

In 2016, Canada’s telecommunications regulator ruled that broadband is an “essential service” that should be available to everyone across the country, no matter where they live. The COVID-19 pandemic further underscores the importance of the CRTC’s ruling. More activities are moving online as people scramble to obtain critical safety information, access health care and education, work remotely and stay in touch with family and friends.

First Nations in rural and remote regions know these challenges well. They have long been aware of the importance of adequate, affordable internet access. And so over the years, they have set up their own technology organizations, built broadband infrastructure and trained local technical expertise.

These Indigenous owned and operated telecommunications providers offer non-profit internet access and digitally enabled health care, education, and culture and language initiatives.

They are involved in building, operating and maintaining essential networks – and employ the local technicians and regional network managers who keep these networks up and running.

Their work is increasingly important as more services move online during the pandemic.

Right now, people in the remote James Bay coast are struggling to connect with each other and to receive updated health information. In fly-in communities such as Kashechewan and Fort Albany, there is no cellular service. Limited bandwidth is now carefully rationed between households and the few public services, such as health clinics, that remain open.

But thanks to the non-profit Western James Bay Telecommunications Network, people can still access essential online services.

Similar conditions exist in the remote Matawa First Nations of Marten Falls, Eabametoong, Neskantaga, Webequie and Nibinamik. There, Matawa First Nations Management has started deploying an 800-kilometre fibre-optic network. But until construction is complete, communities are dependent on heavily oversubscribed satellite links. People cannot access real-time applications that support telemedicine, distance learning and telework.

These and other Indigenous service providers struggle with limited access to the transport networks and mobile spectrum that connect their communities to the rest of the country. They must contend with high prices for bandwidth and residential services, including data caps. They are charged ever-increasing fees for equipment upgrades and installation, and to access hydro poles on which to hang fibre optic cables.

Worst of all, they must compete with national for-profit corporations for limited funding opportunities designed for regions long ignored by these same companies.

Rural and remote regions have always represented a challenging business case for companies obligated to satisfy shareholder demands for returns commensurate with investments in affluent, densely populated areas. These projects simply do not meet established internal rate-of-return thresholds.

Nonetheless, the 2020 report of the Broadcasting and Telecommunications Legislative Review Panel stated that “the telecommunications industry in Canada is more than 2.5 times more profitable than other industries.” Clearly, commercial telecommunications providers and their shareholders are doing fine – and in fact may stand to benefit from the increased use of their infrastructure and services during this pandemic.

While we commend these companies for reliably delivering their services to urban areas, clearly not all Canadians enjoy equal access. COVID-19 highlights the true breadth and depth of Canada’s digital divide.

Longstanding digital inequities are widening as data traffic puts increased strain on already burdened networks. High rates charged by commercial providers further exacerbate the burden on economically marginalized individuals and communities. Vulnerable groups are increasingly targeted by online scams and misinformation, highlighting the importance of culturally appropriate digital literacy.

It is time to recognize the essential role that Indigenous and non-profit telecom providers serve in rural and remote communities.

Rather than direct more resources to already well-off commercial telcos, the federal government should establish an emergency fund specifically for non-profit and Indigenous telecom providers.

These organizations must also be substantively involved in any decisions that affect the delivery of broadband services in their regions, both during this challenging time, and into the future.

Indigenous telecom providers have already demonstrated their commitment to help bridge the urban/rural digital divide – now, more than ever, Canadians should be supporting their work.

Tim Whiteduck is Technology Director, First Nations Education Council (QC) and Chair, First Mile Connectivity Consortium (FMCC), a national association of First Nations telecommunications organizations serving remote and rural communities.

David Paul Achneepineskum is Chief Executive Officer for Matawa First Nations.

Sally Braun is General Manager of Western James Bay Telecom Network.

Bill Murdoch is IT Manager, Clear Sky Connections (Manitoba).

Ken Sanderson is Executive Director, Broadband Communications North Inc. (Manitoba).

Rob McMahon is Associate Professor at the University of Alberta and Coordinator of the FMCC.