As B.C. cautiously moves into the province’s second phase of reopening the economy, connectivity continues to be a challenge for First Nations communities which continue to find themselves unable to access many online platforms.
Denise Williams, CEO of the First Nations Technology Council (FNTC), said the digital divide was further compounded by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“What we see during COVID-19 is over 75 percent of B.C. First Nations communities, specifically, without broadband,” she said.“So what it means is all the things those of us in urban centres are taking for granted like being able to connect over Zoom or apply for relief funds through the federal government online and have those funds directed directly to your online banking, a lot of First Nations people don’t have access to these tools so it means that again we’re marginalized and again we don’t have a clear solution for how to get these services to First Nations people in a timely fashion.”
Due to the unique geographic challenges in B.C. it is often expensive to connect First Nations communities.
Although 93 percent of B.C. households have high-speed internet access (50 megabits-per-second download and 10 megabits-per-second upload), only 38 percent of non-urban Indigenous communities have access to the same level of connectivity.
Williams said because Canada does not have a national broadband strategy, telecommunications companies require every community to submit a business case.
“When you have small remote communities, Telus doesn’t see how to achieve the return on investment to the build, and even if the build does happen through other government programming to fund that last mile of connectivity lots of communities can’t afford it.”
The Ministry of Jobs, Economic Development and Competitiveness said while the province cannot direct where internet providers make their investments it is, however, working with all levels of government and the private sector to explore opportunities to improve internet access in Indigenous communities.
“Bridging the digital divide for First Nations is a critical component of government’s commitment to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP),” a ministry spokesperson said in an email.
The B.C. Government announced its largest investment yet in December 2019 through a $50 million expansion to the Connecting British Columbia Program. The program is currently accepting applications from internet service providers for projects to expand connectivity to under served rural and Indigenous communities.
“Internet service providers can also apply to the Connecting British Columbia program for targeted funding that will help them upgrade existing equipment to quickly respond to the unprecedented demands that the COVID-19 pandemic has placed on internet access,” the spokesperson added.
Since July 2017, Connecting British Columbia projects to improve high-speed internet access (both underway and completed) are benefiting 479 communities, including 83 Indigenous communities.
Other projects to bring internet connectivity to First Nations communities include Connected Coast which represents a $45.4 million federal and provincial investment. The project is a critical step towards high-speed internet access for approximately 54 Indigenous communities on Vancouver Island, Haida Gwaii and along the coast.
Williams said they continue to advocate for an Indigenous Framework for Innovation and Technology (IFIT) which all levels of government would be expected to adhere to.
“The solution to infrastructure and to how technology is integrated in to communities should be led by Indigenous people,” she said. “We want to ultimately ensure good government and accountability and transparency for the building of technology across B.C. We haven’t had a framework historically so what happens is our communities are connected as as convenient for industry.”
FNTC has currently launched a COVID-19 questionnaire on connectivity. Responses received will help FNTC to make clear asks to all levels of government and industry in the pursuit of closing the digital divide during this time of crisis, Williams said.
The ministry said it looks forward to continuing to work with FNTC as they support First Nations throughout the province.