January 16, 2012

Applying First Mile

How can First Nations put First Mile concepts into action?

Gaining and maintaining ownership and control of community and social services is not an easy journey. In many ways it is easier to have someone else take care of community broadband — and telecommunications companies are happy to take on that role and charge high costs for their services.

It has taken many First Nations decades to develop the capacity to control, deliver and manage services such as health and education in their communities. It can happen more quickly with broadband infrastructure and services, but the journey and the challenges are similar.

  • Click here to read stories of how some First Nations are taking control and ownership of broadband development in their territories

First Mile broadband is holistic

To be effective, a local First Mile vision needs to be holistic. That means a vision for broadband development focuses on the whole community. This vision recognizes that in addition to being a service in itself, broadband enables and supports other community and social services.

A holistic vision for First Mile broadband means a community can bring together or break down the silos that separate the different public services. It takes into consideration the needs of local businesses, organizations, households and individuals. In some cases, leadership has opened a dialogue with community members, to learn how the community broadband system can effectively service everyone.

In larger urban environments, the silos in health, education and other sectors create employment and other opportunities in the hope of better serving a large population. In small remote and rural communities, these same transplanted urban silos create a lot of inefficiencies. Small population centres face challenges in adequately supporting many parallel services and systems.

Remote and rural First Nations are removing these silos and working cooperatively with various sectors in their communities to develop efficient and innovative systems that address local needs and priorities.

Strategic relationships and the First Mile

Unlike some other service areas, a broadband network can only be developed through strategic relationships with outside partners and collaborators. The key partners include regional organizations that provide broadband support services to First Nations. These organizations are located in most regions across Canada. Most First Nations are already working with them to support existing networks that service local schools and health centres.

Other key partners are the local, regional or national telecommunications companies that provide the community’s local network connection to the outside.

Finally, the different levels of government can provide funding for these network connections.

Strategic relationships require an effective two-way and mutually respectful communication process. This ensures all partners appreciate and support local developments and requirements. Without this type of relationship, First Nations may end up in the situations whether top-down decisions are made by people who have little or no understanding or appreciation for local needs and priorities. The challenge is to identify people within governments and telecom corporations who are open and responsive to First Nation visions.

What could the First Mile look like in the future?

Some First Nations have been developing their broadband infrastructure for decades, while others are only starting to think about how to do it. It is important to remember that the journey to the First Mile is only beginning for many communities.

Different First Nations will develop their local broadband networks in innovative ways that reflect the unique contexts of their communities. These locally owned networks will also support future development: local control means First Nations can decide what to do with these tools. For example, a community may decide to develop a local phone service using IP (Internet Protocol) phones, or even a local cellular phone network.

This website features stories of First Mile efforts and activities in First Nations across across Canada. We are beginning to conduct research with and publish papers describing how First Nations are putting First Mile concepts into action.

The opportunity to share stories and experiences on this website provides First Nations with a venue for learning and growing together. Building a First Mile network is resulting in the sharing of best practices and lots of lessons learned. The experiences of the early adopters of these tools and systems help to create new opportunities for those who are just beginning their journey.

As these new opportunities are created, the early adopters are in a much better position to benefit from the new experiences and developments that other First Nation leaders share. The First Mile work is only just beginning.