October 21, 2020

British Columbia First Nation addresses digital divide

A view of a lake and a small town beyond it

By Evergreen

A new broadband network established by the Klemtu First Nation in Klemtu, B.C. aims to connect residents, generate social, professional and economic opportunities, and foster community resilience. 

Across Canada, rural and remote First Nations face a significant digital divide. In the context of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis communities in Canada, the digital divide refers to the unequal distribution in access, use of, or impact of broadband connectivity and digital and communications technologies that exist between many Indigenous communities (especially in rural and northern areas), and urban and southern communities.

To address this challenge, some communities are working towards a variety of innovative, locally driven broadband development initiatives. Among them is Klemtu, a remote First Nation village of 500 people nestled in a small harbour along the shores of Swindle Island in British Columbia that is only accessible by boat or float-plane.

Since 2018, the Kitasoo-Xai’xais people of Klemtu First Nation have been involved in a first mile initiative, which aims to deliver digital connectivity to households and businesses in rural, remote, and northern communities. Like other Coastal First Nations, the Kitasoo-Xai’xais are working to establish a regional telecom network infrastructure that can fully meet service delivery needs for broadband connectivity and cell phone service in the Great Bear region, a rainforest that covers 6.4 million hectares on British Columbia’s north and central coast.

Klemtu resident and Climate Action Coordinator Barry Edgar recently participated as a panelist at one of the Community Solutions Network’s virtual Collision Days and spoke about the unique assets and demands of being a small community as it relates to connectivity.

In 2018, after local governments and First Nations identified the high cost of infrastructure as one of the key barriers to expanding internet services, a 3.5-million-metre fibre-optic cable going from north of Prince Rupert to Vancouver Island was placed under the Pacific Ocean.

“Each community is now in charge of paying for their connectivity through the fibre optics cable. They also have discretion over whether to do it or not. My community is definitely interested in it,” said Edgar.

The Kitasoo-Xai’xais ultimately intend to create a community-owned, in-house IT company with control over and operation of the broadband network while leasing the hardware. Aside from increased self-sufficiency, the community broadband network aims to generate social and professional opportunities, enhance economic development, and foster community resilience. The administration will be integrated within municipality operations, and the Kitasoo Band Council will be responsible for collecting payment, issuing equipment, and connecting residents to the internet.

For Edgar, starting their own broadband company was an obvious choice for the people of Klemtu: as telecom companies do not service their area, there was no preexisting partnership to build upon. Currently, the community collaborates with Conuma Cable, a Vancouver-based company that handles hardware issues and repairs. While this collaboration will most likely continue in the short term as the village upgrades their infrastructure in anticipation of fibre optic connectivity, the Klemtu First Nation will eventually identify individuals within their community to do the maintenance and repair work. “We don’t want to outsource that work to a third-party,” said Edgar.

Technology to create smarter & more connected communities

According to Edgar, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic truly amplified his community’s need for connectivity: “COVID simply showed how little bandwidth we have here. In September, we had a potential COVID case which fortunately turned out to be false. The community went into a lockdown – everybody was streaming videos and the internet went slow to a crawl,” said Edgar. “It used to be noticeable before COVID at peak hours, but now it just seems to be all the time.  And it’s not just the streaming! Schoolchildren and university students are also learning remotely, and that takes bandwidth.”

Although Kitasoo officials did not seek approval from Klemtu residents, it appears clear to Edgar that most people are in favour of the project. “People here want a faster connection. Until 2008, there was barely any internet and cell service in Klemtu. We’re a good 10 years behind big cities like Vancouver or Toronto” explained Edgar. In the upcoming months, the analog service that is currently in place in Klemtu will be discontinued, forcing the residents to adapt to new ways.

Connected technology is at the heart of smart city building for municipalities and communities of all sizes. A highlight of Edgar’s recent participation in the British Columbia Collision Day was the opportunity to share insights with peers and meet SMEs that offer relevant smart solutions that his community could utilize. One connection, for example, would allow Edgar to disseminate his knowledge about community operations by recording videos and share them with fellow local city builders. This smart solution could present an alternative to in-person teaching, allow the community to build collective expertise, and improve service delivery over time.

A more connected future ahead

This broadband project is not the only major endeavor happening in Klemtu. Following a 1.7-megawatt upgrade to their hydropower facility, made possible by a $4.6M grant from British Columbia’s Renewable Energy for Remote Communities (RERC) program, the village has recently fully transitioned from diesel power to locally sourced renewable energy.

With the savings, the community intends to address its housing shortage by supporting the creation of new homes and infrastructure such as a wastewater treatment plant and a larger water treatment facility.

While there are over 500 members registered in the Klemtu First Nation, only about 300 have their residence on reserve due to limited housing availability. The other members are spread across Prince Rupert and Vancouver. In the upcoming years, Klemtu will utilize their city-owned forestry company to install new roads and add neighborhoods to the community, providing an opportunity to accommodate returning Klemtu members.

In a rapidly evolving digital society, when the COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the way residents live, work and play, broadband connectivity is increasingly critical. This is especially true for remote First Nations communities, where digital connectivity is essential to residents’ access to improved healthcare, social, land stewardship, economic and governance services. Through his community’s innovative projects, Barry Edgar wants to encourage other First Nations to take the leap and implement smart solutions to create safer, more connected and sustainable communities.

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