The First Mile Connectivity Consortium and Broadband Regulation in the North

Many of Canada’s remote, rural and northern communities still lack access to robust, affordable broadband. Although people living in those regions rely on the technology for services like banking, health and education, doing so is challenging and expensive. Given this situation, a government agency called the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) monitors and regulates the companies that provide broadband to consumers. Last year, the CRTC held a public review of the services available in northern Canada. The agency was concerned that Northwestel (a Bell Canada subsidiary) had failed to fulfill its obligations, and so invited comments on the issue.

Recognizing this challenge – and the opportunities that it presents to support community networking – a coalition of First Nations organizations and academic researchers participated in the hearings. As someone involved in this process, I can say that it is challenging to navigate. But though highly technical and legalistic, it allows participants to present information that might contribute to the decisions that affect how broadband is delivered to Canadians.

The First Mile Connectivity Consortium (FMCC) led last summer’s intervention. While the group’s members are located in different regions, we share common interests – specifically how people living in small communities and remote regions are shaping their own broadband solutions. Rather than talk about communities as the ‘last-mile’ of connectivity, we look for ways to support and highlight local and regional innovations.

In the months leading up to the hearings, we reached out to indigenous technology organizations. This generated several letters of support that supplemented evidence provided by projects like First Nations Innovation. When the public hearings took place in June 2013 in Inuvik (Northwest Territories) and Whitehorse (Yukon), we organized a panel of in-person and remote participants.

During the hearings, we stressed that First Nations community networks can offer competitive services that can support employment. Residents gain opportunities to work as administrators and technicians, while revenues circulate locally. To support these points, an expert witness from Alaska, Prof. Heather Hudson, summarized a recent study on Internet and broadband in 65 villages of Southwest Alaska. She also testified on the need for affordable - not just available - broadband.

Several First Nations organizations also presented their stories. The nonprofit Eeyou Communication Network described how they interconnect 14 communities in the Eeyou Istchee region of Northern Quebec through a 1,500 km fiber optic network. The group provides services for health, education, and IP telecommunications, and sells wholesale data and Internet transit services. In Northern Ontario, the nonprofit KO-KNET (the Kuh-ke-nah Network) provides access and services across Canada. Remote Ojibway and Cree communities gain access to telehealth networks, an online high school (Keewaytinook Internet High School), and computer training and skills development. K-NET’s other services include videoconferencing, Internet telephony (VOIP), and even cell phones.

The First Nations Technology Council described the situation in B.C. First Nations as the permanent residents of Canada’s remote and northern regions have more than a right to be customers, clients and end-users of technology: they also have a right to be service providers. The panel concluded with KFN Community Network, which serves the K'atl'odeeche First Nation in the Northwest Territories. In 2009, the Band received federal funding to build a community-owned, 48-strand dark fiber network. Local residents installed and now operate the network, a community website, and videoconferencing links.

In December 2013, the CRTC released its decision. It recognized that broadband access is increasingly important for northern Canadians. Furthermore, market forces alone are not addressing the special conditions and challenges of telecommunications in the north. Given these findings, the agency reinstated regulation of retail Internet and some other services in the North. It also recognized the position of FMCC that “a regulatory framework that encourages open access to publicly subsidized transport facilities is in the best interest of local communities that can leverage this infrastructure in various ways”.

In the coming months, the CRTC will conduct an inquiry about satellite services and a national review of the Basic Service Objective. The FMCC intends to participate in these initiatives. Our goal is to continue to highlight the role of communities in developing and providing broadband services, and look for ways to build on the work that residents are doing every day.

We invite people involved in community broadband projects to share your story with us. Please visit http://firstmile.ca for more information, or leave a comment below!

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