October 27, 2021

Building Broadband from the Ground Up

A view of an internet tower and a forest beyond it


Access to high-speed, high quality internet was always important. During the pandemic, it has become essential.

Over the past few years, community broadband has emerged as a way for rural, remote, northern and Indigenous communities, often not serviced by larger telecom companies and facing bracingly high fees, to achieve their connectivity goals and unlock opportunities.

In Sioux Valley, MB, Dakota NET, a locally operated Wireless Internet Service Provider, has been supplying high-speed internet to its own and surrounding First Nation communities for over a decade. At the time, there was little to no connectivity in Sioux Valley, a community of 1,400 people located in southwestern Manitoba. Today, the community benefits from high-quality internet – a stark improvement that it owes to the foresight of its band leadership and of Dakota NET manager Gerald Thunderbird Sky.

Self-governed and self-sustainable

In 2010, the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation set out to build broadband to support the development goals of the community. With the support of the Chief of Council, the First Nation used capital expenditures to purchase equipment, one item at a time, over the course of several years. Dakota NET was tasked with operating the newly acquired equipment, running the network, connecting customers, collecting payments and handling maintenance operations. This is no small feat for a team of three staff who manage broadband matters for over 300 households.

From wires and fiber optics to broadband towers, every piece of the infrastructure is owned and controlled by the community – a necessary step to ensure the preservation of their self-governance model.

“We were thinking long term. If we were going to continue to grow, we needed to be in a position to own the infrastructure to be able to put the power in the hands of our people,” says Thunderbird Sky. “In the past, we’ve been in situations where the equipment was leased and when there were outages, there was nothing we could do. We didn’t have a key to the lock box, we weren’t allowed to climb the tower, we couldn’t log into the system. We were at their mercy to come and repair. Now, we can manage it all.”

Self-governance does not come without risks.

“When equipment breaks, it’s on you to fix it!” notes Thunderbird Sky.

Having a team available, and most of all trained, is critical to ensure the network runs smoothly and issues are troubleshooted quickly. On the other hand, with no investors involved in the project and no need for reliance on major internet service providers, Sioux Valley’s broadband structure has rapidly become self-sustainable.

“The network pays for itself and we are able to keep our services affordable. On top of that, all the revenue that is generated by the broadband initiative stays in the community.”

Tapping into new economic opportunities

From creating jobs to attracting new businesses, the advent of broadband has unlocked an array of new economic opportunities for Sioux Valley and the surrounding area. To meet the growing demands for broadband connectivity in the community, the Dakota NET team consists of one installer, one network administrator and Thunderbird Sky himself, who not only handles the town’s connectivity matters, but also oversees all IT operations. The company also hires summer employees from the local high school to introduce youth to careers in IT and telecoms.

According to Thunderbird Sky, connected technologies have significantly improved the lives of residents of the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation. Among them, high speed internet has enabled remote schooling and telehealth – two strategic areas that became pivotal during the COVID-19 pandemic. The success of the broadband initiative has also made the community a more attractive location for new businesses. In the past years, Sioux Valley has welcomed new restaurants, gas stations, a community centre as well as several home-based businesses that offer their services online, all of which generate revenue for the community.

The future is looking bright for Dakota NET. Building on this foundation, the small but mighty internet provider is now exploring ways to expand its offerings with IP technology. IP phones and security cameras, operated through the internet as opposed to cables, could save the community money by moving away from more costly phone landlines and third-party security companies. While security personnel currently sit in a command room to observe surveillance footage, IP technology will also allow them to access real-time video on their phone all while actively securing the community. For the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, this is another step toward self-governance.

From a success story to a replicable solution

Ten years later, Thunderbird Sky reflects on the factors that made this endeavor a resounding success, pointing in particular to the unwavering support from the community’s band leadership and partners who helped him develop broadband knowledge and capacity.

Looking ahead, Thunderbird Sky hopes to partner with other communities that are getting started on their broadband journey. From measuring scope and understanding complex terminology to purchasing the right equipment, he remembers the difficulties he faced in implementing broadband alone. With the deep expertise he has acquired over the years, Thunderbird Sky is now in a position to advise and coach others to do the same.

“It’s a lifechanging thing for a community to have their own local internet service provider. We’ve come a long way and reflecting on it, it’s kind of amazing. It took a lot of people and leadership to come together to make this happen.” says Thunderbird Sky. “I really foresee myself helping other communities that are looking to do something similar.”

Ultimately, his biggest piece of advice is to remember who you’re doing it for – the community.

“It’s not cheap but it’s going to pay off. Don’t be scared of the price tag!”

Gerald Thunderbird Sky is a contributor to the Partnering for Success With Community Broadband toolkit and a panelist at the Indigenous Communities Innovation Workshop organized by the Community Solutions Network.

Innovation Workshops are regional virtual events that bring together municipalities, Indigenous communities, municipal networks, academics, and subject-matter experts to connect, share, and ask questions around how to best use data, tools and processes to advance action on emerging issues around climate adaptation and resilience, smart energy and broadband connectivity.

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