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Closing BC’s Indigenous Internet Gap

Up to two-thirds of First Nations communities still lack basic access. To fix that requires more than piecemeal solutions, says one advocate.

Katie Hyslop 12 Dec

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach her here.

Thanks to a new law implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, British Columbia is now legally required to protect and uphold Indigenous Peoples' human rights.

But — like most UN-recognized human rights — when it comes to the right to broadband Internet access there’s a giant disconnect between Indigenous Peoples' rights and B.C.’s reality.

It’s not clear how many B.C. First Nations communities — specifically reserves — lack the standard broadband access that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has declared a basic service in Canada, offering Internet access with speeds of 50 megabytes per second for downloads and 10 Mbps for uploads.

Just over one-third of rural and remote Canadian households have the basic Internet access as defined by the CRTC, compared to almost 100 per cent of urban households.

The non-profit First Nations Technology Council estimates 75 per cent of communities don’t have access that meets the standard, a rate that’s similar nationwide.

The province says 61 per cent of B.C. Indigenous communities lack access that meets the standard, although the council notes that number may count communities with just one broadband access point, meaning there is one place in town with adequate Internet, but it’s not in every home, school or office.

In either case the majority of people living in First Nations communities lack access to what the CRTC has defined as a basic level of service — enough capacity to allow users to stream high-definition videos to two devices on the same connection at the same time.

But Internet access is about more than binge-watching Netflix.

For First Nations people in rural and remote communities, it’s about accessing doctors via video chats; improving tech literacy; job searches; distance education; or running an online business.

It’s about the nations’ ability to preserve and revitalize their languages; have equitable access to tech industry jobs; and start their own telecommunications and technology firms.

“When we think about Indigenous Peoples' advancement, whether it’s in the economy or the advancement of our language or our jurisdiction over education and health, technology’s an underpinning to all of those,” said Denise Williams, the CEO of the First Nations Technology Council.

“It’s critical that we start to come up with comprehensive collaborative solutions to ensure we’re not only achieving equity, but we’re looking at those affordability questions as well.”

First Nations access is particularly complex, said Williams, because communities are considered to be under federal jurisdiction. Provincially funded Internet infrastructure may stop at a First Nations community’s boundary, for example, making broadband access so close, yet so far.

That’s why the technology council believes a First Nations-centred framework is necessary to achieve equal broadband access.

The council has already started that work using information gathered from consultations with First Nations, government ministries and departments and other groups to draft an “Indigenous Framework for Innovation and Technology.”

“We want to put forward this to allow for a collaborative, comprehensive, meaningful dialogue between everyone who is trying to advance infrastructure, the building of networks, the building of applications and services upon those networks,” Williams said.

“And ensuring Indigenous people have the tools and the capacity to advance self-determination and self-governance, build economies and participate in B.C. and Canada’s digital economy.”

Both the federal and provincial governments have committed funds to closing this gap.

The Canada Connectivity Strategy announced earlier this year comes with a promise of $6 billion over the next 10 years to increase broadband access to 900 rural communities, including 190 Indigenous communities.

But it’s a drop in the bucket when you consider there are over 2,200 First Nations communities in Canada, and 26 Inuit communities.

The CRTC, Canada’s telecommunications regulator, has its own five-year, $750-million broadband fund for improving access, launched in 2017 after the agency declared broadband Internet a basic service for Canadians. Applications for its second round of funding are due in March.

In B.C., the All Nations Trust Company, an Indigenous-owned and operated financial institution, has received $20 million in federal and provincial grants to help provide Internet connection infrastructure through its Pathways to Technology program, focusing on Métis and First Nations access.

The project has helped 126 First Nations communities in the province connect to broadband since 2009. The First Nations Technology Council is on the steering committee.

The B.C. government is in the third phase of its Connecting British Columbia project, which provides $50 million for this phase to expand rural and Indigenous broadband access. Communities, nations and organizations are encouraged to partner with existing broadband providers to apply for funding.

The program is funded by the province and administered by the Northern Development Initiative Trust. Phase three is expected to expand broadband access to approximately 200 rural, remote and Indigenous communities.

But a Northern Development Initiative Trust spokesperson told The Tyee there is no quota for how many Indigenous communities will receive funding.

Williams said she appreciates the funding opportunities, but a framework is essential to ensure not only that every First Nations home, school and business has broadband access, but that First Nations have the ability to use that access to further their own self-governance and sovereignty goals.

“Without a framework in place,” she said, “what we don’t know is exactly what percentage of that $50 million will go to Indigenous communities. We don’t know what that application process would look like and if there would be barriers.”

“A framework in place would prevent competition between First Nations for a limited number of funds.”

The issue isn’t just access, but cost.

At just over $76 a month on average, Canada’s Internet costs in 2018 weren’t the most expensive in the world. But most of Europe, Asia, South America and Australia provided access for much less.

Williams said that if First Nations people achieve broadband equality they could start their own telecommunications firms to provide cheaper Internet for their communities.

“Spectrum allocation — the airwaves — is a natural resource,” said Williams. “And it’s really important to consider Indigenous Peoples’ right to spectrum in this country. And their right to build telecommunications companies, infrastructure and policies as a result of having access to that spectrum.”

The Indigenous Framework for Innovation and Technology is still in its infancy. The council requires funding to complete a plan to ensure affordable access, she said, a process that would involve more consultations with First Nations communities and organizations.

The council has presented its draft framework to provincial and federal government ministries and departments in hopes of receiving funding and other support, but no one has committed to help, she said.

“Because of the siloed nature of government, I think it has been challenging to figure out where it lands and who our champion will be, provincially and federally,” Williams said. She said B.C. ministries like Citizens' Services; Jobs, Trade and Technology; and Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation British Columbia could play a role.

The Tyee contacted all three ministries. Only Citizens’ Services responded, providing information on provincial funding and acknowledging that internet access is spelled out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson said, “Increasing connectivity not only strengthens new economies and enhances access to education and health care, it provides opportunities for Indigenous communities to share their knowledge and culture with the world.” 

The ministry has seen the First Nations Technology Council’s report, the statement said, and “applauds the council for taking on this meaningful mandate.”

The ministry shares information data with the council and and other First Nations organizations, it said.

Story updated Dec. 15 to add information supplied by the Ministry of Citizens’ Services after deadline.  [Tyee]

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