Native groups ponder life after Tobin

Native leaders are wondering where to turn following the government’s failure to support former Industry Minister Brian Tobin’s broadband technology plan in the most recent federal budget.

Spokespeople for Assembly of First Nations (AFN) say they believed Tobin’s proposals would have helped

First Nations deal with a long list of social and economic problems. Access to telehealth services, for example, could dramatically improve the quality of health care in communities located hundreds of kilometres from the nearest hospital. The AFN estimates that the growing Aboriginal population, meanwhile, will create a need for 160,000 jobs for its young people in the next 20 years to avoid catastrophic unemployment numbers.

The National Broadband Task Force, a committee set up by Industry Canada to be at arm’s length from government, presented its report to Tobin on June 18, 2001. The report, entitled “”The New National Dream: Networking the Nation for Broadband Access,”” made recommendations on how best to make high-speed broadband Internet services available to all Canadian communities by the year 2004.

Ken Thomas, CEO and majority owner of Neegan-Burnside Consultants in Saskatoon, spent a lot of time in Ottawa in the days leading up to the budget speech. He was the man AFN National Chief Matthew Coon Come relied on to develop the First Nations connectivity proposal. Thomas is among those still looking for a way to get the project back on track. He made a presentation at an Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) technical conference earlier this month and met with the assistant deputy minister that’s in charge of the whole broadband initiative, Industry Canada’s Mike Binder, in an attempt to find out where First Nations should go next.

“”It was a real disappointment for us when Tobin was unsuccessful in getting the $500 million,”” he said. “”We had met with him the Thursday night just prior to the budget and at that time he was confident that he still had it.””

Federal finance minister Paul Martin did include $105 million for broadband connectivity in a budget line item for 2004, but First Nations leaders don’t believe they can afford to wait that long.

“”With the work that we’ve done, we got a fully developed proposal and also, the National Broadband Task Force final recommendations did put First Nations connectivity as the No. 1 priority,”” Thomas said. “”We thought we were well positioned in terms of all the work that we had done. So we were even more disappointed when Tobin left. We didn’t have a champion.””

Several First Nations are getting to work on their own local solutions following Tobin’s exit from the national political scene. Ninety-eight per cent of First Nation schools are already connected through SchoolNet, a federal government initiative that was implemented in the mid-1990s, and 70 per cent of the communities have a community access point. But that does not allow individuals to have even basic e-mail services. The AFN was worried that a patchwork approach would be slow and would rely on inferior technology.

“”That’s was one of the main reasons why we felt it necessary to present at this INAC tech conference. In the absence of a clear national vision a lot of the bands are being approached by various suppliers of various low band solutions,”” Thomas explained. “”It doesn’t enable the true broadband and specifically the telehealth applications and video-conferencing. You need a minimum bandwidth to enable that. What the broadband task force recommended was 1.5 megabits, fully symmetrical, which means it’s the same speed both ways. In the plan that we built for AFN it was a fully symmetrical and fully consistent with the Broadband Task Force recommendations.””

If the politicians can’t put the national broadband network together, the private sector will try to fill the gap. John Bernard, majority owner and CEO of Ottawa-based Donna Cona Inc., has a $500-million plan of his own. Donna Cona has teamed with LinCsat Communications Inc. of Toronto to market high-speed Internet access via satellite to remote communities. He is looking for ways to raise money to get the project off the ground.

Bernard said the Broadband Task Force pegged the cost of getting all Canadian communities connected to broadband technology at $4 billion. Connecting all households and offices on all First Nations would take up about one-quarter of that money. Tobin was championing a plan that would have cost $525 million.

“”They had come to the conclusion that $1 billion would be to connect First Nations. But they decided that they weren’t going to go the last mile,”” Bernard said. “”They were just going to put a point of presence in each community and then the last mile would have to be done by the community. As long as there’s a point of presence there, the last mile is not such a problem. The point of presence came out to $525 million.””

But the Tobin plan also called for First Nations to raise one-quarter of the $525 million, or $125 million. “”The only way First Nations are going to be able to raise 25 per cent is through the private sector,”” Bernard explained. “”Unfortunately, the private sector’s only going to invest money when there’s a return on investment, and there was no perceived return on investment. They’re going to have a very different time raising the money. Where are First Nations possibly going to get the rest when all of the money that they get comes from the federal government?””

The Maliseet businessman then saw an opportunity in the First Nations’ conundrum. He plans to take Donna Cona public, and raise the $125 million through the IPO.

“”When the money didn’t come through . . . we were all convinced it would. If you remember the Speech from the Throne, the Prime Minister was committed to connecting Aboriginals,”” Bernard said.

In the meantime, Bernard said he is now marketing a slightly less sophisticated – but much less expensive – product to First Nations.

“”I totally support the Broadband Task Force and I totally support Ken Thomas and the AFN national First Nations network, but the reality of the situation is, there’s no money,”” he said. “”The Broadband Task Force, that’s a Cadillac service. They wanted 1.5 symmetrical. That’s very expensive. I’ve partnered up with a local company that allowed us to get two-way satellite. It’s not broadband through the definition of the Broadband Task Force, which is 1.5 up and 1.5 down. But I’ve got to tell you, this two-way satellite service direct way that we’re selling is up to 50 times faster than dialup and 20 times faster than ISBN. It’s the equivalent to what you have at your home if you have Rogers. And it’s very, very affordable.””

He believes young people in reserve communities need to have access to the Internet right away.

“”I often visit communities and I talk to children and I ask them, ‘How many here have been on the Internet?’ Pretty well all of them have. But when I ask them how many have been on the Internet without going through SchoolNet, none of them (have). SchoolNet is not broadband, either, but at least it gives them exposure to the Internet. This is why I’m pushing this right now,”” he said.

Paul Barnsley is the senior national political writer for Windspeaker, a Native-owned news publication.

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