Bridging the Gap
By Andrew Tausz, Fri Jan 04 00:00:00 GMT 2002

An isolated community gets its first solid link to the the outside world - without wires.

There aren't too many communities in Canada more isolated than Pukatawagon, Manitoba. The Northern Cree reserve is situated about 800 kilometers north of Winnipeg but really miles from nowhere. To reach Pukatawagon, means taking a train for eight hours from The Pas or hitching a ride on a small plane.

From a telecom perspective, the Indian reservation had until this spring only 17 telephone lines to serve a community of 2,800 residents. Dial-up to the Internet with these landlines was hit and miss. Usually a miss.

But today Pukatawagon has become better linked to the outside world thanks to satellite and wireless technology. It has a new school with 120 Apple iMacs for its 800 students and 24-hour connections with the Internet. It's not just the school that's online but also key services such as the RCMP (police) detachment, the nursing station and the band administrative office.

Remote access

The wireless network, developed by Avaya Canada Corp. of Mississauga, Ont., uses seven routers, each about eight kilometers apart, to link up with a satellite ground station.

The base station, in turn, connects with a satellite 37,000 kilometers up in the air to beam the signals to Quick Link Communications Ltd. in Calgary. "We take a ground-based wireless solution that allows you to distribute a single satellite feed out to many users. In this fashion, we can extend our fiber-optic backbone in Calgary out to isolated communities in a cost-effective manner," says Patrick Hinds, vice-president of sales for Quick Link. The company has so far connected five isolated native communities in Canada - in Quebec, Manitoba and the Northwest Territories - by integrating satellite, caching, and point-to-multipoint technology.

Established in 1991, Quick Link first made its mark by connecting remote mining, gas and oil sites with the outside world. "But in the past 24 months, we've been focusing on showing how technology can effectively deliver data communications to more than just remote industrial sites. We see a growing niche in serving isolated communities like Pukatawagon. Our solution is to connect wireless and satellite linkups with Calgary, which has more fiber in place than any other city in the world," says Hinds, noting that his company runs an 11 mbps fiber pipeline from its headquarters.

At Pukatawagon, some 50 local families have signed up for unlimited Internet access. The price is $30 (all figures in Canadian dollars) a month, comparable to what's charged in Canadian urban centers. "Bear in mind, the community is heavily subsidizing that cost," says Sherman, Lewis, who was the computer network administrator at the school and a strong advocate in getting the community to be connected with the outside world.

He notes the installation cost for the system was under $130,000. Monthly fees to Quick Link for ISP service are about $2,000. The Internet throughput is a maximum 512 kbps. That may not seem blazing fast. But in rural Canada, throughput speed is typically 9.8 or 19.6 kbps.

"What's critical is not speed of the dial-up but that the connection is reliable. People are not getting cut off anymore. It is making a big difference. Many people don't have the money or opportunity to leave Pukatawagon. Now they have access to just about everything and I'm just amazed how fast some of the residents have caught on to the Internet," says Lewis, whose mother was born in Pukatawagon. Two local entrepreneurs have started selling fish online. Other commercial ventures are in the works.

Pukatawagon's Internet experience is certainly the exception for Indian reservations. Up to two-thirds of native reserves in Canada have no telephone lines let alone access to the Web.

Thinking long-term

The federal government is looking at spending $1 billion on a high-speed Internet network that would link all 633 native reserves in the country. The ambitious goal is to have people living in remote communities from the Northwest Territories to Northern Ontario with Internet access by 2004. Ottawa, however, has yet to commit funding.

How realistic is all this? Quick Links' Pat Hinds believes it's feasible to get all the native reserves connected by 2004 in the same fashion as Pukatawagon - getting 512 kbps of throughput. "If the expectation is that you're going to get a remote community 50 times faster Internet access by 2004, that's very attainable. If the expectation is to enable every remote community with the same capacity that downtown Toronto has - that's unrealistic," he says.

Certainly, native leaders are urging the federal government to open its coffers and get the so-called broadband initiative underway. "We missed the Industrial Revolution. I want to ensure that we do not miss the information-technology revolution," says Mathew Coon Come, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

The assembly hopes to have pilot projects running in eight native communities this year. In anticipation of getting financial support from government, the assembly signed a memorandum this year with Telesat Canada, a satellite telecommunications company, to develop a plan to deliver Internet services to all native communities by 2004.

Telesat is taking an inventory of each reserve's current access to telephone and cable lines. The one-third of the bands that have telephone or cable linkups tend to own the telco infrastructure themselves. Carriers are reluctant to invest in fast modems or DSL lines for isolated communities.

There is ongoing debate whether a high-cost Internet project should be a priority given that native communities across Canada face a vast array of economic and social problems, from substandard housing to high suicide rates.

"The remoteness is death to these Indian communities. They have no hope or future. But if you can get them onto the Internet, there's some opportunity to learn skills." That's the blunt assessment from James LeCraw, executive director for Computers For Schools - Ontario, a non-profit organization that distributes donated computers to Ontario schools.

LeCraw is finalizing plans to truck 300 computers to Sioux Lookout in Northern Ontario for distribution by plane to remote Indian communities along the Hudson Bay shoreline. Some dated 486 PCs will be shipped. "No, it's not going to be a dumping ground for tech equipment that the south doesn't want," says LeCraw. "We will distribute Pentium PCs as well. But there's such a dearth of technology in these native communities that they're screaming for anything."

Solid returns

Kelly Dudra, channel manager of data (western) for Avaya Canada Corp., points out that by bringing Internet access to isolated communities, people will not only be able to connect to social services but to create economic development as well. "The combination of broadband and satellite technology levels the playing field so that isolated regions can now access the very same services southern residents have enjoyed for years," he says.

Sherman Lewis argues getting connected is a much-needed lifeline for a community like Pukatawagon ravaged by poverty and social ills. "At least 50% of the adult population lives by traditional means such as hunting and trapping. The others are employed by the band administration or don't work at all," he says.

There's no denying that the Mathias Colomb Indian Band at Pukatawagon lives in third-world conditions. Residents obtain water from a water delivery truck. They utilize pit privies and a lagoon for sewage disposal. The community has a new school paid by the federal government with $500,00 worth of computers and network connections. But the old school, five kilometres away, had to be abandoned because toxic PCBs were buried nearby.

"The education level at Pukatawagon is well below what it should be," says Lewis, who has moved his family back to less isolated Peterborough, Ontario. Only eight students graduated from high school last year. Only one is going to college.

"The powers that be in the community have not put a high enough priority on using the technology effectively to improve the chance of the children succeeding in the outside world. For students who are motivated and don't have the money to get to a highschool elsewhere, they should at least be able to tap into courses over the Internet," says Lewis.

Instructional courses for highschool diplomas are readily available online. In Pukatawagon's case, students can tap into an English curriculum developed at Keewatin Community College based in The Pas, Manitoba. But many students at Indian reserves have difficulties understanding English - so distance-learning courses have to be translated into Cree and other native tongues.

Technologically speaking, getting everyone up to Internet speed may be the easiest - albeit the most expensive - part of the equation. The more formidable challenge is to motivate isolated Indian students to keep pursuing an education.

"There's still so, so much more to be done," says Mr. Lewis.

Andrew Tausz is a freelance writer based in Toronto specializing in telco issues.