November 14, 2019 1 month 1 day ago

Bridging the Digital Divide: "There’s no business case for that"

NORTH BAY, Ont. – The headline you see came about mid-day during the first Bridging the Digital Divide rural broadband conference being held in North Bay this week.

The prescient comment was made by Geoff Gillon, executive director of the Rainy River Business Development Corporation (Fort Frances, Ont.), and those six words sum up the massive challenge of making sure all Canadians can get excellent broadband and wireless service, no matter where they live.

Canadian consumers and businesses need broadband, whether it’s to take a university course where the school is thousands of miles away, to run robotics in a dairy barn, or just stream Netflix in their homes the way it happens for millions of us who live in cities and towns where there is a business case for that.

In a lot of these regions – where there are far more utility poles than people, to use another phrase a number of delegates also mentioned Wednesday (and we’ll get to the story on poles in the coming weeks), finding that business case requires co-operation among levels of government, vendors, funding agencies and service providers.

While conference delegates heard stories of where it’s working, far more prominent were stories from leaders of “rising rural frustration,” said Victoria Smith, senior manager of strategic initiatives for the Strathcona Regional District (Vancouver Island). This frustration due to lack of reliable connectivity is causing people to move away of rural regions and businesses to invest elsewhere.

Execulink president and CEO Ian Stevens told us by far the number one question he hears from local politicians in the rural regions he visits is about the state of rural broadband and how it can be improved.

Indeed, the conference is populated not just by vendors and service providers large and small, but various indigenous leaders and members of local governments, some of whom have taken the bull by the horns to build their own networks.

Clearcable’s Rob McCann showed how Parkland County, Alberta (just west of Edmonton) features an average of 13 people per sq. km. and instead of waiting for a network builder to serve their community, it went ahead and put up towers and transmitters, each fed by fibre, which it leases to local entrepreneurs to provide internet service. “De-risking the operators and owning the infrastructure yourselves,” is a viable way to bring broadband to rural communities, said McCann.

Then, when Ontario’s Minister of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade took to the stage for his luncheon keynote, Vic Fedeli told a story those living in Northern Ontario – and lots of other regions – know all too well. Fedeli is also the Nipissing MP who lives in Corbeil and when he has to drive the 50 kms down the Trans Canada Highway to Mattawa, he knows exactly the two places his cell service cuts out and can even warn people he’s talking to (he’s even cut out on the premier while on a conference call) when it’s about to happen.

Delegates also heard Wednesday (including the CRTC’s Chris Seidl) how far behind Indigenous communities are and how their young people really feel the sting as their connectivity lags the rest of the country. Strathcona’s Smith noted it might help all of us to look instead at how they operate, because they co-operate. “It strikes me deeply that even after everything, the priority for these Nations is to use the internet as a vehicle to share their traditional ways of knowing and living respectfully with the land and each other,” she said.

“Through my work I am exposed constantly to these stories and the opportunities, and they compel us to consider shifting our attitude to this challenge of the digital divide. A report commissioned by General Electric as part of their Remote Communities Initiative calls for an attitude where we look at spending in rural, remote and Indigenous communities not as a subsidy, but as a strategic investment for the country as a whole.”

One of the conference’s afternoon sessions featured four First Nations communities and their successful broadband stories. Cartt.ca featured one of them here last year

“Connectivity is productivity,” said Chief Paul Burke of Fort Severn First Nation, kicking off the panel.

“It’s 2019 and there are children who are Canadians who are transmitting files in the same way that people in North Korea do.” – Shawn Power, Kativik Regional Government

Kativik’s (Northern Quebec) Shawn Power also spoke of the lengths some First Nations youth have to go to watch online videos or listen to new music: When they visit cities, they load as much content as they can on a thumb drive to bring back home – and then they physically circulate that USB stick among their friends because broadband either doesn’t exist in their communities, is so slow it won’t deliver multimedia, or is too expensive.

Power noted the people of a far less free and prosperous country than Canada reportedly have to circulate content this way as well because of their utter lack of connectivity. “It’s 2019 and there are children who are Canadians who are transmitting files in the same way that people in North Korea do.”

It was heartening to hear how Eeyou, KNet (Sioux Lookout), the Kativik Regional Government (Ice Wireless has rolled out there) and Fort Severn are coming up with creative ways of delivering connectivity to their communities. But, it’s not easy and there remains much to do.

Nearly 250 delegates made the trip to The Gateway of the North this week to hear over 30 speakers address the various challenges facing those delivering rural broadband. The buzz of ideas and the camaraderie is palpable here. Conference organizer Amedeo Bernardi has tapped a real need with an excellent conference.

It continues Thursday, but Wednesday was just so jam-packed with information and ideas, we can’t cover it all with one story, so we’ll have more later in the week, where we’ll show how the “business case for that” is being built (if too slowly).

The top photo, from left, are Alfred Loon, Eeyou Communications; Jesse Fiddler, KNet; Lisa Severson, Eastern Ontario Regional Network Project; Shawn Power, Kativik Regional Government; Chief Paul Burke, Fort Severn First Nation; and moderator Mike Marcolongo from the government of Ontario’s rural program’s branch of the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.