Broadband Internet in Indigenous Communities

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Broadband Internet access supports Indigenous self-determination by enabling communities to address priorities, improving access to programs and services, supporting economic participation and contributing to the revitalization of Indigenous languages and cultures. However, many Indigenous communities do not have access to reliable, affordable broadband Internet. Indigenous organizations, such as the Assembly of First Nations and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, have highlighted the importance of broadband Internet access in Indigenous communities for several years. This HillNote provides information on the availability of broadband Internet and its importance for Indigenous communities.

Broadband Internet Access in Indigenous Communities

In 2016, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) established a universal service objective indicating that all Canadians should have access to voice services and broadband Internet. Canadian fixed broadband Internet service subscribers should have access to speeds of at least 50 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 10 Mbps upload (referred to as 50/10 Mbps) and a service offering unlimited data.

Recent disaggregated data on broadband Internet access in Indigenous communities is limited. While data often point toward an urban–rural divide in access to broadband Internet, there is also a significant gap between Indigenous communities (located in rural, remote and urban areas) and non-Indigenous communities. The National Broadband Internet Service Availability Map illustrates available Internet speeds by percentage of area covered and lists Internet service providers operating in communities across Canada. Many communities in northern Canada are dependent on satellite technology for Internet access that may offer slower speeds than other technologies.

Relevant data include the following:

  • In 2017, 76% of households in Indigenous communities did not have access to 50/10 Mbps.
  • In 2019, 87.4% of Canadian households, including 98.6% of urban households and 45.6% of rural households, had access to services that met or exceeded the CRTC’s universal service objective. In comparison, only 34.8% of First Nations reserves had such access. Figure 1 shows the variation in broadband speed and availability on First Nations reserves by province or territory.
  • According to the 2017 Aboriginal Peoples Survey, 68% of Inuit in Inuit Nunangat (the Inuit homeland) had Internet access at home versus 91% of Inuit living outside that region.
  • In 2017, among individuals who self-identified as Métis, 93% had Internet access at home.

Figure 1 – Availability of Broadband Internet on First Nations Reserves, Provinces and Territories by Speed, 2019 (Percentage of households)

This bar graph shows the availability of broadband Internet by speed on First Nations reserves in provinces and territories across Canada. This figure shows that, in 2019, 87.1% of households in First Nations reserves in Canada could access broadband Internet services with a speed of at least 5 Mbps. However, availability decreases to below half of households at speeds of 50 Mbps or faster and to less than a third at speeds of 100 Mbps or faster. Availability varied by province and territory as households in First Nations reserves in New Brunswick and British Columbia had the highest availability of Internet services at speeds of 50 Mbps or faster. However, these services were not available to households in First Nations reserves in Newfoundland and Labrador or the North.

Note: Analysis of broadband availability is based on First Nations reserve areas according to Statistics Canada census data. The term “reserve” is defined in the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s 2020 Communications Monitoring Report. Nunavut is excluded from the figure as there are no reserves in the territory. In Nunavut, broadband availability by category is 99.6% for 5 Mbps+, 0% for 25 Mbps+, 0% for 50/10/unlimited and 0% for 100 Mbps+. Data for Nunavut are reflected in the data for Canada.
Source: Figure prepared by the Library of Parliament based on data obtained from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, “LTE and Broadband Availability,” Communications Monitoring Report.

Impacts on Indigenous Communities

Indigenous communities are disproportionately affected by the lack of broadband Internet access because it exacerbates long-standing inequities in areas such as health, employment and education. Even where broadband Internet is available, it may be inaccessible to Indigenous People if it is too expensive and/or Indigenous People lack digital devices.

Factors contributing to the absence of reliable, affordable broadband Internet in some Indigenous communities include high infrastructure and maintenance costs, low revenues for providers, challenges with timely resolution of network issues in remote communities, and short shipping and construction seasons for installing necessary equipment.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, lack of broadband Internet access affected Indigenous communities in several ways:

  • Indigenous governments encountered challenges in providing services to their communities and participating in business opportunities.
  • Bandwidth limitations affected the use of video conferencing, access to distance education and Internet use in the classroom in Inuit Nunangat.
  • Some Indigenous People must leave their communities to access health services. However, broadband Internet access could allow for virtual care potentially resulting in fewer patients leaving their communities to access health services.
  • Indigenous youth have limited opportunities to learn digital skills, which may affect their economic participation.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of broadband Internet as work, school and many services shifted online. However, Indigenous communities without broadband Internet access faced challenges, including the following:

Relevant Federal Government Programs

In 2019, the federal government released a strategy aiming for all Canadians to have access to 50/10 Mbps by 2030. Examples of federal programs that may support broadband Internet in Indigenous communities are listed in Table 1.

Table 1 – Examples of Federal Government Programs Supporting Broadband Internet

Federal Government Entity Program Name Additional Information
Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission Broadband Fund
  • Supports projects that provide broadband Internet access and mobile wireless services in underserved areas in Canada
  • Up to $750 million available over five years funded by large Canadian telecommunications service providers
  • First call for applications issued in June 2019
Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) Connect to Innovate
  • Proposed funding from Budget 2016 ($500 million) and Budget 2019 ($85 million)
  • Supports new and upgraded backbone and last-mile infrastructure projects in rural and remote communities
ISED Universal Broadband Fund
  • Proposed $2.75 billion includes up to $50 million for mobile Internet projects that benefit Indigenous Peoples
  • Provides funding for broadband infrastructure projects to bring Internet at 50/10 Mbps to rural and remote communities
Canada Infrastructure Bank Indigenous Community Infrastructure Initiative
  • Aims to invest $1 billion in Indigenous infrastructure projects in areas such as broadband
Indigenous Services Canada First Nation Infrastructure Fund
  • Supports infrastructure projects in First Nations communities in areas including connectivity

Source: Table prepared by the Library of Parliament.

Indigenous Initiatives

Some Indigenous organizations have recommended specific technologies or approaches to improve broadband Internet access in their communities. A 2021 report indicated that “[t]he development, delivery, and adoption of broadband connectivity in Indigenous communities should be led by, and developed in partnership with, Indigenous people.” In recent decades, Indigenous organizations and communities have established their own service providers and telecommunication networks, and implemented projects to improve broadband Internet access while addressing community needs. Some examples include:

  • Pathways to Technology, a project managed by Indigenous-owned All Nations Trust Company, which aims to bring affordable high-speed Internet to First Nations in British Columbia.
  • Clear Sky Connections, an Indigenous-owned telecommunications network aiming to address the connectivity gaps facing First Nations in Manitoba.
  • PanArctic Communications Inc., which was established in 2019 as Nunavut’s first 100% Inuit-owned telecommunications service provider.
  • Mamawapowin Technology Society, a not-for-profit organization providing free wireless high-speed Internet to the Samson Cree Nation in Alberta. It was created by Bruce Buffalo, who used his own funds and raised money to develop the network.
  • K-Net, a First Nations-owned and operated information and communication technologies service provider based in Sioux Lookout, Ontario, that provides Internet access to over 100 First Nations. It was created by a First Nations tribal council (Keewaytinook Okimakanak) and it works with partner First Nations to develop a community-owned network and share its network management expertise. K-Net has supported other initiatives including KO eHealth Telemedicine.
  • Voyageur Internet, a Métis-owned company that offers high-speed Internet to communities in Manitoba.

Through these and other initiatives, Indigenous communities are developing solutions to improve broadband Internet access in response to community needs and priorities.

Additional Resources

First Mile Connectivity Consortium, Publications.

Connectivity in Northern & Indigenous Communities, Northern Public Affairs, Vol. 6, Special Issue No. 2, 2018.

Author: Brittany Collier, Library of Parliament

Categories: Indigenous affairs, Information and communications

Tags: , , , , , , ,

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