A broadband phone service company and an ISP targeting Canada’s Aboriginal communities have joined forces to deliver affordable Internet phone service to First Nations peoples who have traditionally had limited access to communications infrastructures.

Vonage Canada and Nations Sphere, an Aboriginal company based in Ohsweken, Six Nations of Grand River, Ont., have reached an agreement whereby the ISP will sell Vonage’s broadband phone service under the MetHawk Telenet brand. The deal means that Nations Sphere will be the first Aboriginal ISP to offer broadband Internet and Internet telephone service powered by Vonage’s voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology.

The MetHawk Telenet VoIP phone service will be available as flat rate residential packages starting at $19.99 per month for 500 minutes of phone time (local and long-distance), up to $39.99 per month for unlimited local and long-distance calling in Canada and the U.S. And business packages covering Canada and the U.S. will range from $55.99 per month for 1,500 local and long-distance minutes, up to $69.99 per month for unlimited calling.

First Nations peoples in Canada are currently paying high local and long-distance rates, said Kim Sigurdson, president and CEO of Nations Sphere, which provides tele-conferencing, tele-health, distance education and Internet TV services across Canada. These rates, he said, amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for even the smallest Aboriginal communities.

“A First Nations community of approximately 500 people will spend between $15,000 to $20,000 a month, or roughly a quarter of a million dollars a year — that’s phone, Internet and fax,” said Sigurdson, adding that the bundled offering is due later this year. “And with us, they (will) save almost $8,000 a month, or roughly $100,000 a year.”

Joe Parent, vice-president of marketing and business development at Vonage Canada, headquartered in Mississauga, Ont., said the company expects to have both 911 and a local number portability capability built into its service for all customers by the end of the month. 

“It’s almost a social revolution in terms of bringing technology to these groups and all the power that comes with that,” he said, adding that aboriginals tend to prefer buying from within their own communities. “The fact that we can partner up with a company like Nations Sphere and deliver our service through them gives us a better opportunity to be able to sell our services into the Aboriginal community than we might be able to do, say, if we just went in under our Vonage brand.”

Roberta Fox, senior partner at Markham, Ont.-based consulting firm Fox Group, has decades of experience working with Aboriginal peoples. The Nations Sphere-Vonage Canada partnership, she said, is really the continuation of a trend that has seen Aboriginals following their entrepreneurial leanings and making things happen in their communities.

“More and more of them are becoming business-oriented,” said Fox. She added that Aboriginals who, while previously stuck with dial-up Internet access, learned to use the least amount of code possible to create Web pages, will now be able to leverage high-speed options to take their e-commerce initiatives to the next level.

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