Investments from telecommunication companies and governments over the past decade have sought to connect more rural and Indigenous communities to high-speed internet, but there is little progress to show for it in too many of Canada’s remote communities. Amid a global pandemic that has required a shift to online work, education and social connections, quality internet connection is an essential service that communities can no longer forgo.

An effective COVID-19 response plan requires identifying gaps in Canada’s connectivity strategy to better understand why 54 per cent of households outside urban centres still cannot meet the CRTC’s target of unlimited 50/10 Mbps internet speed. In the northern territories, no households at all meet the CRTC target.

According to Indigenous Services Canada’s count, there have been more than 25,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in First Nation reserves, and more than 1,100 hospitalizations. Access to high-speed internet is necessary to provide patients the efficient communication and public health tools they need.

Canada’s profit-driven market model of telecommunications is a significant impediment to fully connecting remote and Indigenous communities.

Due to the pandemic, many First Nations have closed their borders to visitors, allowing only essential workers and pandemic relief to enter. Without the right communications technology to allow them to easily access help, these communities are at increased risk of isolation and inadequate outbreak management.

To explore these realities, the Ryerson Leadership Lab hosted a virtual workshop last month featuring representatives from community, government and industry to discuss what sustains connectivity gaps in Indigenous communities and remote areas. The discussion was the first in the Overcoming Digital Divides Workshop Series, a six-part public series to explore how Canada can pave a clearer path toward meaningful digital inclusion. The discussion raised several policy considerations that should inform Canada’s pandemic response and connectivity strategy:

Lack of digital infrastructure

Canada’s profit-driven market model of telecommunications is a significant impediment to fully connecting remote and Indigenous communities: returns on investment for expanding internet infrastructure to remote areas with low population densities aren’t high enough to incentivize service providers to take on transformative infrastructure projects, according to Denise Williams, CEO of the First Nations Technology Council.

This places a greater burden on government initiatives. The federal government has announced its $1.75 billion Universal Broadband Fund and provinces have committed approximately $1.7 billion since 2018. This influx of public funds has enabled some projects to expand internet connectivity to remote communities, according to Susan Stanford, British Columbia’s Assistant Deputy Minister for connectivity, and Shazia Sobani, VP of customer network implementation for Telus.

While these initiatives are a step in the right direction, many projects are still in progress, are poorly coordinated, do not always address last-mile connectivity (the connection between the main network and an individual user’s home), and give undue consideration to costs and profits rather than the projects’ real long-term value. For example, a project is under way in British Columbia to connect communities along the coast using undersea fibre optic cables; but for non-coastal communities, building out this kind of digital infrastructure over land would be cost prohibitive and therefore less likely to go ahead, according to Stanford.

Canada’s profit-driven market model of telecommunications is a significant impediment to fully connecting remote and Indigenous communities.

Inclusion of Indigenous voices and upskilling

Expanding access to digital infrastructure and ensuring remote connectivity are the first steps to creating an effective pandemic response strategy. However, full digital inclusion requires much more than just infrastructure. The meaningful inclusion of Indigenous voices as equal and knowledgeable partners, capable of determining their own vision and managing their own community infrastructure, is just as important. Upskilling programs can provide Indigenous people with the right tools to advocate for advanced community infrastructure networks, and to keep using these state-of-the-art technologies even after the pandemic.

Indigenous peoples’ lived experiences also paint an important picture for policy-makers and service providers to understand. Jennifer Manitowabi is a mother of three and the community lead at Connected North, a not-for-profit connecting northern remote Indigenous communities to educators in the south. As a resident of Lac Seul First Nation in Ontario, she described having to drive through underdeveloped roads without any signage and undertake multiple jobs at once to provide basic educational programming for Indigenous students with minimal access to technology or devices.

Moreover, many Indigenous groups that are in desperate need of digital infrastructure investment spend an inordinate amount of time working on funding applications, only to be rejected because they do not measure up to requests written by experts from better-served communities, Manitowabi said. Public investments to expand internet access will not reach their full potential if smaller service providers and Indigenous communities cannot access these funds for community-based projects, according to Williams.

Three-level coordination of partnerships: Public, private and community

Providing sufficient access to quality internet requires high-level coordination between public, private and Indigenous stakeholders. A single group is not enough to create the necessary momentum for change. Canada’s national broadband strategy is missing a robust and coordinated policy and regulatory framework that upholds Indigenous peoples’ rights to equal and affordable internet access and integrates technology-informed, educated Indigenous voices, Williams said. For example, the potential for low-Earth orbit satellites to expand internet access is contingent on the ability of, a) public initiatives to foster competition between service providers; b) industry to successfully adapt to disruptive technologies at affordable prices; and c) local communities to understand how this new technology can be used or how it can complement existing services.

Before digital infrastructure can be built, multiple stepping stones must be in place to get the right infrastructure into the areas where it’s most needed. Last-mile initiatives, transportation development and capacity-building must first be coordinated across service providers and other actors, Stanford said. The complexity of addressing connectivity in a vast and geographically diverse country such as Canada also requires us to think about a multi-jurisdictional approach to connectivity: large and small service providers must develop initiatives with an eye to empowering and meeting the needs of their host communities. This involves not only adding more funds into our current system, but also re-imagining what is possible, including what a system that is multi-layered, cooperative and inclusive of all stakeholder needs could look like.

A comprehensive coordination strategy is particularly urgent for Indigenous communities during the pandemic because inadequate housing, pre-existing health conditions and geographic isolation can significantly aggravate risks associated with COVID-19. Therefore, government responses must build the technical capacity of Indigenous communities to ensure access to digital services, reliable online communication networks and public health resources in the long term. If not, we will fall short of addressing the most fundamental needs of those most at risk.

Data sovereignty

Meaningful, transformative strategies to expand internet access also require that Indigenous communities can control their own data. Data sovereignty is a key priority for Indigenous people looking to create and use networks that accurately reflect their communities’ unique needs and vision. How data from Indigenous communities will be used and commodified is often overlooked in policy discussions, with stakeholders prioritizing the need to build digital infrastructure as quickly as possible. Much of the frustration comes from the fact that Indigenous communities’ information is given to the government for reporting purposes rather than helping to build self-determined Indigenous nations that can control the actual impact of these technologies, Williams said. Including Indigenous people in conversations around expanding high-speed internet access requires upholding the First Nation principles of ownership, control, access and possession (OCAP).

Expanding high-speed internet access to Indigenous and remote communities requires an evidence-informed approach that combines infrastructure investment, upskilling for Indigenous people through educational programming, and a real commitment to First Nations’ ownership and control of data and technology. The pandemic has shown us why access to the internet is crucial, and policy-makers must take seriously Indigenous peoples’ call for change amid this crisis — as well as their vision of what community-based infrastructure should look like post-pandemic.

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Nour Abdelaal is a Policy and Research Assistant at the Ryerson Leadership Lab, specializing in technology and cybersecurity, and was formerly a Political Assistant at the U.S. Consulate General in Toronto.

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Sam Andrey is Director of Policy and Research at Ryerson Leadership Lab.