Three years ago, the people living in the Ochiichagwe'Babigo'Ining Ojibway Nation in Ontario would crowd in each other's homes and outside the band office to access what little internet the community had. There was dial-up, there was expensive cellular data, and there was some service from an internet provider in a neighboring town; when the network went down, it would sometimes take weeks for a technician to come and fix the issue.
The community's kids—itching to get their gaming systems online and scroll through Facebook on their phones—weren't having it. So Chad Henry, now 26, gathered a group of five other young people, some just teenagers, and formed a youth council with the mission of bringing high speed internet to their town. And they were going to do it themselves.
"It gets hard sometimes—it's overbearing at points"
Within three months, Henry told me in an interview, the youth council had drafted a business plan, secured funding from the local band, and hired a contractor to build a telecommunications tower. They purchased bandwidth from a small provider, and beamed it from their tower and into the homes of anybody who wanted it—high speed, unlimited bandwidth, and relatively cheap; just $40 a month. That was in 2013.
Two years later, the First Nations community ISP run by teenagers and 20 somethings services 30 homes, and the project is far from finished.
"We want to expand it," Henry told me. "Right now it's limited within our community—we only have 60 houses—but there's a lot of cottages along the Winnipeg River. We want to set up a tower on the south side of our community, to reach Myrtle Rapids and the rest of the cottages along the river."
The original tower will be upgraded, too, Henry said. Next week, the service will double its speed from 10Mbps to 20Mbps. A comparable 25Mbps Bell package costs $69.95, and has a 125GB bandwidth cap. Semi-frequent power outages also pose a problem, and so the council is looking to install solar panels on the tower.
Expansion will come with its challenges, both financial and social. The youth council holds yearly elections, and the turnover rate is high. The council was training a technician for the ISP, Henry said, but they were voted out, so the process had to begin all over again. "It's back to me," Henry said, "It gets hard sometimes—it's overbearing at points."
Although the case of Henry and the rest of the Ochiichagwe'Babigo'Ining Ojibway Nation's youth is remarkable, it's not totally unique. Dozens of First Nations communities across Canada, cut off from the grid by geography or business choices by the big telecom companies, have come together to start their own ISPs. There's even larger, regional First Nations internet companies, which often help communities to manage their own internet projects.
The First Mile project, a research and advocacy group based at the University of New Brunswick, has been keeping track of the various indigenous bandwidth projects underway across the country and lobbying the Canadian government for subsidies that help small community projects like Henry's get off the ground, instead of funneling funds to the larger players.
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"This is another example of youth—think A Tribe Called Red—it's that kind of youth resurgence movement," said Rob McMahon, an assistant professor and First Mile project coordinator based at the University of Alberta. "They want to live there and have the same access to quality of life and games like Call of Duty, and opportunities that everyone in Canada has. And you know what? They're going to do it themselves. And that deserves to be celebrated."
In Canada, the digital divide is alive and well, and it often coincides with geographical divides. Northern and otherwise isolated communities are often cut off from proper internet access, as well as affordable food. This can lead to some inventive solutions, like mailing a USB stick back and forth across the country, or starting a community ISP.
"We often hear these statistics, like 98 percent of Canadian households will have internet, but that is generally concentrated in urban areas and some rural areas"
The difference between most municipal broadband projects—where cities start up their own ISPs—and those that take place in First Nations communities, McMahon said, is that the latter are often products of necessity. While a city starting its own gigabit fiber network may have simply had it with Comcast, some indigenous communities may have never had the opportunity to be so irate.
"We often hear these statistics, like 98 percent of Canadian households will have internet, but that is generally concentrated in urban areas and some rural areas," McMahon said. "Oftentimes these First Nations communities, and Inuit communities, are left out of the connectivity."
The second difference is that many First Nations internet projects have a particularly civic bent. Since indigenous communities have jurisdiction over things like health care and education, it's not unusual for a project to start out of a high school that served as an internet hub and spiral out from there.
This community-mindedness rings true In the case of the Ochiichagwe'Babigo'Ining ISP. All the money goes back into running the service, and back into the band for things like end of year trips for students.
"None of us get paid for doing stuff on the youth council, it's for the other youth," Henry said. "It's not there for ourselves."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that Rob McMahon is a researcher based at the University of New Brunswick. While UNB is the university partner of the First Mile project, McMahon is now based at the University of Alberta. This article has been updated to reflect this. Motherboard sincerely regrets the error.