First Nations still struggle to access equitable telecom services in remote and rural regions

From the Business Edge

First Nations lag behind in connectivity - Service providers urged to improve services to remote communities

By Monte Stewart - Business Edge - 04/04/2008 - Vol. 8, No. 7

Canada's telecom and broadband-service companies should be providing better connectivity to First Nations reserves, particularly those in remote areas, says a communications professor.

Greater First Nations connectivity was a priority of the Kelowna Accord, a proposed federal-provincial financing and rights deal with First Nations that was introduced by former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin, but was scrapped when Stephen Harper's Tories took office.

First Nations connectivity programs have slowed since then, says Richard Smith, a Simon Fraser University communications professor who studies First Nations telecommunications.

While Smith notes many First Nations in urban areas have access to broadband and cellphone networks, many in remote areas do not because they are not wealthy and do not make attractive customers for private firms.

"(Cellphone service) is not regulated like telephone services, where the companies have to provide service," says Smith. "It's just an optional thing. (Cellphone service providers) go where the money is to be made. So remote and small communities generally don't have any cellphone access - unless they just happen to be near a larger community or a big highway that big companies tend to provide service along."

He says companies have shied away from boosting cellphone access because it is not subsidized the same way as high-speed Internet access, also known as broadband.

Telus spokesman Shawn Hall says it's true that most remote and small communities do not have cellphone access, but many are getting connected, the technology is fairly new and still being rolled out - and costs have deterred expansion. In urban centres, the economies of scale exist to provide services more cost-effectively, he adds. "An average cellphone tower can cost anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million-plus to bring in, so you have to have the economies of scale to make that work," says Hall, noting Telus tries to place antennae on existing structures.

The news isn't much better for Aboriginal people when it comes to the Internet. According to a 2006 Canadian Council on Learning (CCL) report, many First Nations are still isolated.

The CCL study found only 13 per cent of First Nations communities and 41 per cent of remote communities had broadband access while more than 60 per cent of urban communities and small towns had access to DSL, cable or wireless broadband services.

Bryan Hendry, a policy adviser for the Ottawa-based Assembly of First Nations, says greater connectivity can help grow small businesses, as well as education and health care.

"The overall community well-being benefits when you have access to the world, information-wise and business-wise. People don't have that feeling of isolation."

Many First Nations lack connections to the basic infrastructure - telephone lines, underground cables and cellphone towers - that are necessary to provide Internet and other communication services.

"There are still reserves where there are only one or two phone lines - and that's it," says Hendry. "Definitely, connectivity and phone access are still big concerns and big priorities."

Some provincial governments are trying to do their part. The Alberta government, working with Bell, constructed the Alberta Supernet, which ensures high-speed Internet access for about 430 communities in the province.

Under a deal with the B.C. government and local service providers, Telus spent $117 million on broadband network upgrades that will link 119 of 151 unconnected communities.

"Many of those were First Nation communities, providing them with tremendous benefits," says Hall.

B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell's Liberals also provided a $630,000 grant to the B.C. Community Connectivity Co-operative and the First Nations Technology Council (FNTC) to help communities conquer the so-called "last mile" connection to homes and businesses.

Norm Leech, a member of the FNTC, says his group hopes 55 B.C.-based First Nations will have "industrial-strength" Internet connectivity this year.

"To not have it is to have no access (to Canada's economy)," says Leech, also the administrative services manager for the T'it'q'et First Nation community near Lilloet. "It's to be disconnected and to be on the other side of the river with no bridge."

SFU's Smith predicts all First Nations will have high-speed Internet access within five to 10 years.

"It's getting better. One of the encouraging things is First Nations ... have made this a priority.?

He praises the Ontario government for providing $2.8 million to K-Net Services, based in Sioux Lookout, from the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corp. (NOHFC) to improve electronic delivery of essential services in 17 Nishnawbe Aski First Nations communities. K-Net is a department within the Keewaytinook Okimakanak (KO) First Nations Council.

"When you start connecting rural and remote communities in Canada, then inevitably you start connecting First Nations communities," he says.

(Monte Stewart can be reached at