The First Mile Connectivity Consortium and Digital Regulation in Canada

Rob McMahon1, Heather Hudson2, Lyle Fabian3
  1. Postdoctoral Fellow, First Nations Innovation Project, Department of Sociology, University of New Brunswick, Canada. Email:
  2. Professor, Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of Alaska Anchorage, United States.
  3. IT Manager, K'atl'odeeche First Nation, Northwest Territories, Canada.

On June 19 and 20, 2013 the First Mile Connectivity Consortium, K'atl'odeeche First Nation and the Eeyou Communications Network intervened in a regulatory hearing about digital infrastructure and services in the Canadian north. The three parties focused on issues of access, affordability, and the potential for infrastructure development in the North to support community development. They argued that northern residents should be offered opportunities as producers as well as consumers of telecommunications services. This article provides a summary of this intervention.

Many of Canada's remote, rural and northern communities still lack access to robust digital infrastructure and services. Although these small and geographically dispersed communities utilize high capacity networks for a range of services - from banking to health and education - doing so is challenging and expensive for many residents. The First Mile Connectivity Consortium (FMCC) advocates for changes to policies and regulations that might help address these issues. The group highlights ways that people living in under-serviced regions might be enabled to implement their own development solutions. Its work re-frames 'last-mile' infrastructure to foreground communities as the 'first mile' of connectivity. To this end, the diverse group of university-based researchers, First Nations regional technology organizations, and individual First Nations showcase how broadband policy can support community development, highlight local innovation, and overcome digital divides. They showcase the on-the-ground work taking place in remote communities every day, and draw on research partnerships like the First Nations Innovation Project at the University of New Brunswick.

Funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the FMCC has developed several resources. A national report published in 2010 combined a literature review and interviews about how broadband policy can support community development. A website profiles local indigenous technology projects across Canada. Through the First Nations Innovation Project, the group's members have published more than 50 academic articles on First Nations-led broadband initiatives. These resources provided a foundation of empirical evidence that the group used to intervene in a recent regulatory hearing.

In December 2012, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) announced a review of the services and infrastructure in northern Canada (see Map 2). The CRTC was concerned that Northwestel (a Bell Canada subsidiary) had failed to fulfill its regulatory obligations to provide essential services in this territory. The Commission invited public comments, with supporting evidence and rationale, on issues including broadband services for residents of the region.

The consultation consisted of several phases: written filings from interested parties, responses to these filings, and public hearings. In the months leading up to the hearings, the FMCC posted an information package on their website and reached out to indigenous community members and organizations. These efforts generated several letters of support from Aboriginal organizations and information about local First Mile initiatives.

When the public hearings took place in June 2013 in Inuvik (Northwest Territories) and Whitehorse (Yukon), the FMCC organized a panel of in-person and remote participants. The first group to appear was the Eeyou Communication Network (ECN), which testified in Inuvik by audioconference. Established in 2012, the nonprofit regional broadband network interconnects 14 communities in Northern Quebec (including the nine Cree communities of Eeyou Istchee) through a 1,500 km optical fiber network. It provides services for health, education, and IP telecommunications, and is a wholesaler of data and Internet transit services. Along with expressing its support of the FMCC, ECN representatives Alfred Loon, Cédric Melançon and Hyman Glustein suggested the CRTC consider establishing a support fund for community networks and a licensee to disburse the funds. It also called on the regulator to enforce open access to transport infrastructure.

Two days later the second phase of the hearings opened in Whitehorse. Representing the FMCC, Rob McMahon stated the group was generally in favor of modernization by Northwestel, but expressed concerns about the details of the publicly available version of the company's development plan. First Nations can offer competitive services through community networks that can encourage universal broadband access, affordable service, and competition. Community networks can also support local employment by providing residents with opportunities to work as administrators and technicians, and by circulating revenues insides communities. The FMCC also suggested the CRTC call for public comments to establish a subsidy mechanism to support the creation and ongoing operations of such networks. The group also submitted that the development of any modernization plan in the North must engage with affected individuals and communities.

Prof. Heather Hudson, participating as an expert witness from Alaska, testified on the need for broadband for northern social and economic development, and the importance of affordability as well as availability of broadband services. She summarized the results of a recent study on Internet and broadband in 65 villages of Southwest Alaska. Competition coupled with new approaches to subsidies can result in modernized facilities and services that are both available and affordable. Finally, she described recent work undertaken by the Federal Communications Commission in the U.S., and specifically, the Office of Native Affairs and Policy. The Office is mandated to expand broadband in remote and Tribal areas and encourages tribal entities to become certified as telecommunications carriers. The FCC also requires all communications providers receiving subsidies to serve tribal lands must meaningfully engage with tribal governments.

The Commission then heard from two First Nations technology organizations. Keewaytinook Okimakanak is a nonprofit organization established by the Chiefs of six remote First Nations in Northwestern Ontario. Its telecommunications service, KO-KNET (the Kuh-ke-nah Network) provides access and services to remote Cree and Ojibway communities in northern Ontario, and other communities across Canada. It also contracts with health care providers to provide telehealth networks, and with the Ontario Ministry of Education to support an online high school (Keewaytinook Internet High School) for students in remote communities. KO-KNET also provides computer training and skills development for community members, manages a not-for-profit, satellite-based, carrier class network, and provides videoconferencing, Internet telephony (VOIP), and mobile telephone services. Brian Beaton, former manager of KO-KNET, testified on the organization's experiences providing services to rural and remote communities, and supporting them in developing and managing their own networks. He described two examples of FNCNs that operate in isolated communities considered too small and expensive to serve by major wireless and wireline providers.

The First Nations Technology Council (FNTC) was created by and for the 203 First Nations in British Columbia (some of which fall within Northwestel's service area). The organization provides connectivity, capacity building, information systems, and other technology services and support functions. It also promotes the use of technology as a tool that First Nations use to improve quality of life for their citizens. First Nations can participate in the provision and maintenance of infrastructure in ways that invest in the northern, sparsely populated regions of the country, and the indigenous communities that are permanent residents there. Norm Leech, executive director of FNTC, stated that First Nations have more than a right to be customers, clients and end-users of technology: they also have a right to become service providers.

The panel concluded with a presentation by Lyle Fabian of the KFN Community Network, which serves the K'atl'odeeche First Nation (KFN) near Hay River in the Northwest Territories. In 2007, KFN began utilizing wireless and server technology to establish a community network on top of existing copper infrastructure installed by Northwestel in the early 1980s. In 2009, the Band received federal funding to build a community-owned, 48-strand dark fiber network, which now interconnects several local services. They also hired and trained local residents to install and manage the network, establish a community website, provide videoconferencing links, and conduct a feasibility study for a larger-scale fiber network. These projects encourage partnerships between government, private sector entities, and other First Nation communities in the region. The public proceedings concluded with a final submission in July that summarized key points and outlined recommendations.

In December 2013, the CRTC released its decision, which reflected a qualified success for the FMCC. The announced regulatory policy was framed in a developmental context, and noted the Commission recognizes that broadband Internet access is, more than ever, an important means of communication for northern Canadians, needed to achieve a number of social, economic, and cultural objectives. The Commission agreed with the FMCC about the lack of a competitive market in the North. It recognized the special conditions and challenges of telecommunications in the north, and that market forces alone are not addressing them. Two specific elements of the decision addressed the lack of competitive markets: that retail terrestrial Internet in the North is now virtually a Northwestel monopoly; and that a wholesale monopoly exists in regions served only by satellite. Given these findings, the Commission decided to reinstate regulation of retail Internet and some other services in the North, and will launch an inquiry on satellite transport services offered in Canada in 2014.

Concerning open access, the Commission recognized the position of FMCC that "a regulatory framework that encourages open access to publicly subsidized transport facilities is in the best interest of local communities that can leverage this infrastructure in various ways". While the CRTC did not agree to open the National Contribution Fund to providers other than Northwestel, it will launch a proceeding that will include consideration of a mechanism to fund infrastructure investment in transport facilities in Northwestel's operating territory. This would complement other investments from the private sector and governments, including public-private partnerships. The decision also makes many references to the need for "affordable" services, although affordability is not defined.

The CRTC made no specific mention of consultation with indigenous organizations or communities in this decision. The FMCC had recommended that progress on Northwestel's modernization plan be closely and independently monitored, with sanctions for failure to meet targets. While the Commission did require Northwestel to file a revised Modernization Plan and annual progress reports, it did not specify any sanctions or penalties if the company fails to meet its targets.

In the coming months, the CRTC will conduct an inquiry about satellite services and a national review of the Basic Service Objective. The FMCC plans to participate in these initiatives, with the goal of continuing to highlight the need to enable communities to participate in the development and provision of networked digital services.

Materials Associated with the Intervention

Comments on CRTC Telecom Regulatory Policy CRTC 2013-711 - December 19, 2013

Inuvik Hearing - June 17, 2013

Whitehorse Hearing - June 19, 2013

Reply comments - June 20, 2013

Final submission - July 9, 2013

Initial submissions (prior to Hearings)