September 5, 2018 1 year 3 months ago

THE INDEPENDENTS: Connecting the north takes a community to build a network

THE NINE CREE AND FOUR francophone communities that ring James Bay in Quebec’s far north may be nearly 1,000 kilometres from major cities, but the rest of the world is only fractions of a second away in most of them thanks to a recent partnership between the Eeyou Communications Network (ECN), the locally run nonprofit which oversees telecommunications in the vast, sparsely populated territory, Toronto-based independent carrier Distributel and several other public and private partners.

Alfred Loon is president and founder of ECN. He says the project was first conceived a decade ago as an economic development project with the Cree Nation Government, but gradually took on a life of its own. In June of this year, the partnership, with financial support from the federal and provincial governments and help from the Cree Nation Government and Hydro-Québec, brought high-speed internet access, along with cable TV and IP home phone service, to 4,000 residents in seven Cree communities -- Wemindji, Eastmain, Waskaganish, Waswanipi, Ouje-Bougoumou, Nemaska and Mistissini -- and the French-speaking community of Radisson.

(Above, Alfred Loon of ECN displays a map of what the fiberoptic network will look like when it's fully completed.)

In July, ECN and Distributel announced plans to expand the network, bringing the James Bay communities of Matagami, Chapais, Lebel-sur-Quévillon and Chibougamau into the loop. The project is also expected to provide 21 jobs. 

 “ECN approached us about two years ago with the original idea, but it morphed quite substantially as we spoke,” says Distributel CEO Matt Stein. “It was very collaborative. Our role was to provide the actual services, rather than the last-mile build, which was ECN’s responsibility.”

ECN’s structure is unique in the country, in that the Indigenous-run nonprofit owns its own network and hires its own, local technicians, explains Loon. He adds that ECN teams knew the ins and outs of internet connectivity, but were less familiar with cable TV and IP telephony, so they wanted to partner with an experienced private provider.

Telus provides connectivity to health facilities, and Distributel connects homes, businesses and other government bodies, Loon explains. “Once we connected the institutions, we thought, ‘How do we go about connecting homes?’ We approached a lot of different market players... and only Distributel was interested.” The agreement was signed in spring of this year, and the first eight communities were connected with federal assistance; Loon hopes the remaining communities, which weren’t eligible for federal funding, will be connected by fall 2019.

“Our communities won’t generate a huge profit... and the profits will go to shareholders. Here, the profits will be reinvested into the network.” – Steeve Gamache, Chapais, Quebec

Steeve Gamache is the mayor of Chapais, a French-speaking James Bay community of 1,600 people. The way he sees it, public-private partnerships like this one are key to keeping the North connected.  “There’s always a financial issue when it comes to private companies serving remote communities,” he says. “Our communities won’t generate a huge profit... and the profits will go to shareholders. Here, the profits will be reinvested into the network.”

Lebel-sur-Quévillon, the southernmost community on the network, and Whapmagoostui,  the northernmost, a fly-in-fly out town which ECN hopes to connect as part of the project’s third phase, are nearly 700 kilometres apart. Piecing together a network over a vast swath of territory in the Far North presents some unique challenges, according to Loon. This year’s successes were the result of a decade of planning.

“We have a large territory,and long, cold winters, and the cost of doing any project up in James Bay is very expensive, compared to the South,” says Loon, adding that the network had to buy specialized cable that could withstand temperatures as low as minus-52 Celsius. “That’s why we had to call in a bunch of partners... we built a whole community, and that community’s purpose was building this network.”

Loon says the region’s previous Internet service came from an aging microwave network provided by Télébec, which couldn’t keep up with growing demand. “The network was never upgraded, the population has been growing, and everybody needs Internet. The existing network didn’t have the capacity.”

He says the goal of the project was to provide quality high-speed internet at prices comparable to Montreal and Quebec City. The Distributel package now available in seven Cree communities and in Radisson offers $150-month 250 mbps both up and down, more than 30 cable channels and 500 long-distance minutes. There’s also a slimmed-down package available for $60 per month. The new setup has received rave reviews, so far. “I spoke to one customer who said he was gaming, his wife was watching Netflix, their kids were on their iPads and there was no slowdown whatsoever,” says Loon. He hopes the four remaining James Bay communities will be connected by fall 2019.

Loon and Gamache hope the project will have a ripple effect far beyond allowing Northerners to enjoy Netflix and online gaming. Loon says the Cree Nation has taken advantage of greater connectivity to live-stream an annual general meeting and expand distance learning. Philippe Lubino, director of Chisasibi Regional Hospital, says improved connectivity has allowed for online medical consultations and sharing of ultrasounds -- pregnant women who once had to travel three days to Montreal for a routine OB-GYN appointment no longer have to.

“Everyone should be able to communicate.” – Alfred Loon, ECN

“(Mothers) have had to miss work and find babysitters for their kids, travel and receive care that’s not necessarily culturally adapted, and they’re sometimes discriminated against,” says Lubino. “It’s important to allow people to receive care on the territory, in their language, whenever we can...and when doctors are able to save in-person appointments for people who absolutely need them, that’s more efficient for everyone.”

Gamache says the improved network may also help communities deal with another persistent problem – brain drain. “My kids study in Quebec City, and as soon as they get back home and want to watch a movie online, everything blocks,” Gamache says. “Hopefully, better Internet will help us bring young people back and attract more people to live and work in the North.”

Stein and Loon say the project, built as a collaboration between Indigenous groups, private providers, public utilities, the federal government and local communities, is being looked at as a potential model by remote Indigenous communities in Northern Alberta, Northern Manitoba and Arctic Quebec. An infusion of funding announced in late August by the federal and provincial governments will help launch a similar project in Inuit territory in Arctic Quebec, coordinated by the Kativik Regional Government. “Everyone is waiting for this project, and now we’ll have to deliver,” says Loon. “Everyone should be able to communicate.”

Although Loon is excited about bringing the world to the North, he hopes that community members will won’t forget the world just outside their doors. “Internet is an excellent tool for people who want to look for employment, to buy things, (to access) entertainment, to do homework... but be careful with it. Before we had Internet, kids in our communities were playing outside. Internet came in, kids played outside less. High speed internet, even less. Make sure you go outside once in a while!”