Canadian First Nations communities outside of major centers remain underserved by Internet providers, receiving minimum service at a maximum price. Due to their isolation and small populations, many First Nations rely on Internet to deliver critical services from health to education and administration to their community. But distant decision-makers removed from community needs often institute policies and funding programs that do not support local priorities.
First Nations have begun to address these digital disparities – and have generated social and economic opportunities – by taking ownership of local broadband infrastructure. The First Mile project, a partnership between First Nations ICT Regional Networks and university-based researchers, is a Canadian initiative that celebrates locally owned and managed First Nations broadband projects.
According to the site,
“First Mile” refers to a relationship between a First Nation community and its local broadband system in which the First Nation is in control. It is reversing the way that telecommunications is traditionally developed to benefit the corporate telecom provider. Investments and development of the community infrastructure “first” ensures the backbone infrastructure will be developed to support community applications.
First Mile (FM) is unique in its emphasis on infrastructure. Whereas many initiatives featured on Ethnos Project focus on software and technology that builds on Internet infrastructure, First Mile works at the core of community-based network development and local ownership. The FM vision supports not only connected communities, but communities that are connected in ways that fosters sustainable, locally-driven development and operational practices. The First Mile website provides an online space for these groups to share stories and learn from the experiences of other community-driven Internet infrastructure. You can read about First Nations’ experiences and contribute your own stories here.
The vast database of community stories facilitates development of best practices for First Nations’ connectivity in Canada. The stories tell of responses tailored to meet each community’s unique circumstances, demographic profile, and geography — although many communities face the shared challenges of high connectivity costs and a lack of robust infrastructure. Below are several First Nations connectivity initiatives highlighted on the First Mile site:
- Slate Falls is a remote Ontario community accessible only by a year-round logging road. All telephone services run over internet, which is locally owned and operated by the indigenous community. Although Slate Falls previously connected through the Northern Indigenous Community Satellite Network, it recently switched to a high-speed fiber broadband connection through the the Northwestern Ontario Broadband Expansion Initiative.
- Fort Severn is the northernmost community in Ontario. The remote village is a key example of how First Nations are developing their own internet content, programs and services. To date, they have implemented their own community radio station, a community cable TV service, a community internet service, a mobile phone service, a community-led and supported services including telehealth, telemedicine, distance education and videoconferencing. You can read more about their programs at their community technology showcase website.
- The British Columbia Band Seabird Island launched a wireless broadband network in 2007. Seabird Wi-fi is fully owned and operated by the band, and receives no external funding.
- The Mohawks of Tyendinaga began innovating technology to meeting community needs as early as 1980. But despite its location two hours outside of Toronto, the Tyendinaga community continues to face roadblocks in delivering fast, affordable ICT services to its members. Read more about their efforts here.
- The Blood Reserve in Alberta is the largest First Nations reserve in Canada. Local leadership are working to install high-speed wireless Internet to all residents and local service organizations. The video below discusses the community’s plans and the challenges they face putting it in place.
The First Mile project grew out of a collaborative 2010 study (pdf) on broadband connections in First Nations communities conducted by Simon Fraser University, the University of New Brunswick, First Nations Technology Council and others. The report (pdf), titled “Putting the ‘last-mile’ first: Re-framing Broadband Development in First Nations and Inuit Communities,” outlined how federal leadership and strategy lacked a coherent policy on Aboriginal connectivity and discussed the socio-economic factors that affect First Nations connectivity. In 2010, the First Mile partners received a Knowledge Synthesis Grant on the Digital Economy from the prestigious Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. While their grant officially ends in 2013, the work of First Mile will continue through First Nations Innovation Project as a sister initiative.
You can learn more about the First Mile Project at: