First Nations asks Ottawa for broadband support

Calling it vital to Canada’s First Nations economic and social progress, Assembly of First Nations (AFN) national chief Matthew Coon Come unveiled in the House of Commons Monday a $500 million plan for a high-speed broadband network.

The AFN’s proposed plan calls for an “advanced and cost-effective” national First Nations broadband network. The proposed hybrid satellite/terrestrial infrastructure would provide high-speed Internet services and videoconferencing to 633 First Nations communities across Canada.

The network would carry e-commerce, tele-health, tele-education, and other applications designed to allow First Nations to participate as equals in Canada’s economy, AFN officials said.

Pointing out key commitments made by the federal government in the last speech from the Throne to position Canada as the “most connected country in the world by 2004” and to ensure basic job, health, education, housing, and infrastructure needs are met in First Nations communities, Coon Come urged Industry Minister Brian Tobin to table the plan as the federal government develops its priorities for the December budget.

“First Nations in Canada share Mr. Tobin’s view that high-speed communications will create new economic opportunities and reduce poverty in remote communities,” said Coon Come in a prepared statement.

Officials from Industry Canada could not confirm whether the plan would be placed on high priority, but did recognize the need to establish a network to connect remote communities.

“The next generation of telecommunications is broadband,” said Michael Binder, Assistant Deputy Minister, Spectrum Information Technology and Telecommunications at Industry Canada.

“Among the First Nations we have argued that we should provide some economic stimulus to (that community). I couldn’t think of a better project to stimulate that,” Binder said.

Binder noted post-Sept. 11 issues have clouded the budget picture.

“Sept. 11 has impacted the economy and therefore reduced revenue and reduced flexibility of the government,” Binder said.

“There was a discussion amongst ministers about the policy on doing broadband. Our ministry got some support, but whether there will be money in the budget to back it up is a different issue.”

The AFN tabled a proposal showing a commitment to raise $122 million towards the project, with the rest of estimated $400 to $500 million tab to be shared by different partners, AFN officials said.

Ken Thomas, national chief advisor on economic development and technology for the AFN, noted the government has been receptive to the plan. “Industry Canada had a national broadband task force, and this strategy is completely consistent with that report,” Thomas said.

Thomas said the plan will provide the essential infrastructure to run all applications and provide broadband access to administration offices, schools, and health clinic locations within every First Nation community.

The AFN signed last May a memorandum of understanding with Ottawa-based satellite communications provider Telesat Canada to help plan, design and select technology for the network, Thomas said.

“We approached Telesat primarily because two-thirds of our First Nations can only be served cost-effectively using satellite technology,” Thomas said.

“This network would establish a broadband point of presence,” said Dennis Billard, vice-president of business development at Telesat in Ottawa.

“A large antenna would be deployed, and some of the c-band capacity that Telesat has by requirement of our license for satellite with Industry Canada will be made available. So you have the satellite space capacity hooked up with these large antennas for throughput in these communities,” Billard said.

Billard said the network would provide connectivity in First Nations communities – some of which lack rudimentary phone services, Billard said. He added that high speed Internet would allow educational videos to be streamed into First Nations schools while videoconferencing via remote diagnostics could improve healthcare by avoiding the need to airlift patients.

“The social issues that are there today won’t go away tomorrow,” Billard said.

“We look forward to seeing what kind of response Mr. Tobin has for us.”

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