Testing the Gaps in First Nations’ Internet Access

In July 2004, the Assembly of First Nations passed a resolution directing “the government of  Canada to honour its commitment to connect every community to broadband services by 2005.” But nearly a decade and a half later, many First Nations communities remain without any internet connectivity. This issue was highlighted in 2016 by the CRTC when it announced $750 million in funding for broadband projects in underserved areas of Canada, including First Nations communities.

Now, a new project led by three First Nations regional technology organizations, along with Cybera (Alberta’s not-for-profit technology accelerator), will evaluate internet speeds in Indigenous communities across Manitoba, Alberta and BC. Their goal is to determine whether progress is being made to deliver improved broadband to residents in these areas.

Funded by the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) through its Community Investment Program (announced today), the project will support the wider objective of improving internet access in rural and remote communities across Canada.

Identifying Internet Gaps

A major component of identifying areas that need broadband infrastructure investment is first proving where the infrastructure gaps are. Currently, Canadians use tools like CIRA’s Internet Performance Test to test the speed and quality of their internet connections. Since it was launched in 2015, the Internet Performance Test has aggregated 370,000 speed tests. However, it has little to no information on First Nations communities.

Members of the new project, including representatives from the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre, the First Nations Technology Council, and the First Nations Technical Services Advisory Group, will develop inexpensive (Raspberry Pi) devices that can be configured and sent to participating homes and businesses to assess their internet speeds. An important result of their investigation, which will run until February 28, 2019, will be new methodologies and guidelines for deploying inexpensive internet measurement platforms in other First Nations communities. This information and knowledge will be shared to help build further cases for broadband support.

An Inexpensive and Open Source Solution

The team will use open source methodologies to collect and analyze internet speed data. Dr. Rob McMahon of the University of Alberta will support them with their research, planning, and community engagement efforts. McMahon is the coordinator for the the First Mile Connectivity Consortium (FMCC), which was set up by ten First Nations technology providers, including the three partners in this project, as well as academic partners. The consortium advocates for policies and regulations to support Indigenous-led technology initiatives across Canada. It is hoped that this project’s initiatives will be taken up by groups like the FMCC.

“Internet connectivity is vital for any community looking to work, learn, play, or communicate in the 21st Century,” says McMahon. “The First Mile Connectivity Consortium was created by First Nations organizations to highlight the issue of underserved remote and rural First Nations communities and support Indigenous innovators.”

“Having concrete information to highlight these gaps will contribute to the consortium’s efforts, as well as those of other communities, governments, and First Nations groups who are actively working to close network gaps, including through community-led networking projects,” says Denise Williams, Executive Director of the First Nations Technology Council.

“First Nations communities will benefit from having access to more complete connectivity data, in order to advocate for better broadband services,” adds David Chan, data scientist and project manager at Cybera. “Through this project, we hope to advance efforts to bring internet access to everyone in Canada.”

For more information about this project, and how to get involved, contact projects@cybera.ca.