Indigenous communities deserve equitable access to the Internet

In the spirit of Canada 150, I want to spend some time reflecting on the importance of representing, respecting, and paying homage to our Indigenous population. And since I’m in the business of connecting communities with affordable, reliable Internet, I’d like to focus on the lack of connectivity in Indigenous communities across Canada.

Jean-Pierre Blais, Chairman, Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), recently spoke at the Banff World Media Festival. He announced that “Through our recent radio licensing hearing, we are taking important steps to correct the broadcasting system’s historical lack of service for urban Indigenous communities. By their numbers, the people in these communities do not have market force. But as citizens and first inhabitants of this country, they deserve to have access to the communications services they need to contribute to Canada’s cultural experience.”

The CRTC has taken steps internally to support Canada’s first inhabitants. 16 of the 417 employees at CRTC belong to Indigenous communities. They also established a partnership with Tungasuvvingat Inuit to create work and develop career opportunities.

When it comes to Internet connectivity, more has to be done, and the CRTC has the ball rolling. During a recent public consultation, 50,000 respondents told the CRTC that “a lack of broadband access is actually harmful to their social and economic well beings. That how limited access to broadband (or in some cases, none at all) throttles economic growth and degrades their quality of life. Sadly, this reality is no more apparent than in Canada’s northern and remote communities, which have been chronically underserved by the country’s telecommunications providers.”

In response, the CRTC established a new standard for Canadian fixed broadband access; 50 megabits (Mbps) per second download and 10 Mbps upload speeds. This is 10 times greater than the standards from five years ago.

Of course, there are areas that don’t meet this new standard and will have a difficult time implementing it, which is why there is a new $750 million fund to support such development. This is a huge commitment to upgrade service standards across the board, but affordability will still be an issue in certain areas, specifically within Indigenous communities that do not have the “market force” to attract providers.

The Chairman is saying good things, but there is a gap between the rhetoric and the actions. The CRTC needs to do much more in terms of regulation to ensure equitable access to the Internet for all Canadians. 

For example, in a condo downtown Toronto you can get 1 Gbps symmetrical Internet over fibre optics with an SLA for $100 per month. This level of service is unavailable to most businesses, residents and First Nations peoples anywhere else in Canada. 

So, setting a target of 50 Mbps/10 Mbps is aiming low and playing to the incumbent providers because they can deliver this service by upgrading copper infrastructure which just exacerbates the digital divide. 

CRTC bandwidth targets also fail to address other connectivity issues that limit or prevent businesses and residents running multiple applications simultaneously and concurrently (QoS) and symmetrically (symmetry is needed for cloud and peer to peer apps). 

Also, because the bandwidth on these asymmetrical connections are shared with thousands of users the performance fluctuates which makes relying on them for mission critical apps like healthcare unusable.

Therefore, through their policies, the CRTC is systematically building in a structural inequality in our society that affects a person’s ability to find a job, start a business, receive healthcare, get an education and access government services.   

In a condo in the city, you have better access to the Internet so you also have a competitive social and economic advantage over Canadians who don’t enjoy the same access. 

I’ve always believed that equitable access to the Internet is the right of every Canadian. To truly make a difference in our northern and remote communities, a higher standard must be set so everyone has the resources they need to thrive in today’s digital world.  

What else can our governments do to improve Internet access for Canada’s Indigenous communities? Develop a set of aspirational guiding principles as basis for determining policy, programs and funding…

Guiding Principles of Broadband Internet

An Internet connection must support these guiding principles to qualify for government funding, so taxpayers money is used to build a digital platform that is future-ready today:

  1. Standards-Based Architecture: The system will interoperate with all other systems and is easy to support.

  2. Highly Available and Scalable: The network connection is available at any moment in time, wherever users, places or things need it, any time they need it, and the system can scale in capacity to all sessions and applications dynamically without significant additional capital outlays or system delays.

  3. Symmetrical: the bandwidth (information carrying capacity) of the network connection is symmetrical. This means the speed and capacity of data download and upload are equal.  Symmetry is necessary to support point-to-point and cloud-based applications.  Low latency of the symmetrical signal is essential to effective applications performance over the symmetrical connection.

  4. Supports differentiation: A differentiated system is one that supports multiple Classes of Service (CoS) and Quality of Service (QoS) for all applications that require it.  

  5. Neutral and Open Access: There are no barriers to entry for users and providers to access each other. The playing field is level, meaning there are facilities, contractual mechanisms, published rates, and oversight in place to ensure access is open to all users and providers.

  6. Ubiquitous and Equitable: Ubiquity means physical accessibility of the network to everyone, and equitability means costs are the same for everyone to provide applications and services over the system or use applications and services on the system regardless of geographic point of ingress/egress or demographic characteristics of the locale.

  7. Balance Competition and Cooperation: The system and processes promote competition in services and applications. More competition between providers leads to better services and lower prices for everyone, while cooperation can be critical for fixed cost sharing in deploying Next Generation Networks (NGN).