Internet Project in Beardy’s and Okemasis Cree Nation Is a Beacon for the Community

Internet Project in Beardy’s and Okemasis Cree Nation Is a Beacon for the Community

The November 2020 announcement of the Universal Broadband Fund (UBF) from the Canadian government set off a holiday season of preparation for Charles Bighead. A member of the Beardy’s and Okemasis Cree Nation, Bighead is also the project manager for the Nation’s plan to bring fixed wireless internet to their reserve. He spent much of that pandemic Christmas break looking into options to get better internet on the reserve and deciphering the application form to access federal funding.

They landed on terrestrial internet rather than satellite because the price and the landscape were right, with a good line of sight that would allow two towers—one on the northeast corner and the other in the southwest corner—to distribute the load of wireless connections across the 370 homes on the reserve. Their location also allowed them to tap into a fibre corridor running from Saskatoon and Prince Albert, offering access to speeds five to 10 times what was available from existing providers in the area.

““The real indicators or testimonials are coming from your people. They just love it.”

– Charles Bighead

Though the total price tag of $2.2 million sounds steep, the time Bighead spent on applying to the UBF paid off; it ultimately covered 90 per cent of the eligible project costs. The new solution is also half the cost of what was available before but bringing much better speeds—which are going over very well in the community.

“The real indicators or testimonials are coming from your people,” Bighead said at the National Indigenous Information Technology Alliance IT Symposium in October 2023. “They just love it.”

There’s more to love with the new service than just speed; it also supports the community in multiple ways. The network and customer service are handled by Indigenize Tech, a company owned by a band member and hiring other local band members, and for the moment, the band is paying for the service instead of each household paying a subscription fee.

“It’s owned by our community, and it’s run by a community member,” Bighead said. “At the end of the day, that’s what you really want.”

Community access was an important driver for the project, which is why the council decided to cover the costs for all households on the reserve. Pickup has been brisk, with 300 of 370 households connected in the first four months the project has been live.

There may be a subscription fee in the future, but subscribers will still be saving. Previous providers were charging $150 a month for much slower speeds, not to mention service that was unreliable on windy or rainy days. But even accounting for operational and forward-looking maintenance costs, they estimate $75 per month is plenty to provide higher speeds and more reliable service from within their own community.

“The best operating model for IT systems is when local IT folks are hired,” said Bighead. “So that’s what’s happening in Beardy’s.”

The community is so proud of the project that they decided to put lights atop the towers that push the signal out to access points, even though they’re low enough that lights aren’t required.

“As a beacon, as a point of reference,” Bighead said. “Wherever you are in the community, you can see these lights at night.”

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