Despite delays during the first year of broadband Internet cable construction in northern Ontario, the project that is being lauded as essential for the future of First Nation communities has seen work started on three fronts.
Construction on The Northern Ontario Broadband Expansion Project kicked off in the spring after a federal environmental assessment was approved in April.
Since then, despite setbacks caused by forest fires, over 270 kilometres of broadband cable has been laid in three separate parts of northwestern Ontario. Also, a regional First Nation construction company has been awarded a contract for a huge portion of the project.
That awarding of the contract has led Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Grand Chief Stan Beardy to vouch that the project has started to show “extended, long-term benefits” for First Nations people in northern Ontario.
The project, explained
The Northern Ontario Broadband Expansion Project will eventually connect 26 remote First Nation communities along a network of 2,300 kilometres of fibre optic cable.
It has been lauded by government leaders at both the federal and provincial level.Beardy said it will “open up a new world” for people in Nishnawbe Aski communities, bringing e-health, telemedicine and online education to young and old alike.
Nearly one year since the funding for the $81 million project was set in place, work has started on three fronts across northwestern Ontario.
Broadband lines are now stretching north from Red Lake towards Pikangikum; between Ignace and Mishkeegogamang; and connecting Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) and Wapekeka.
But those lines are just the beginning. By 2014, if all goes according to plan, 26 communities across the North will be connected by a broadband cable loop running from Red Lake in the west to KI in the north, to Ogoki River in the east and back south to Ignace.
“We cannot get left behind”
Beardy calls technology “the final frontier” when it comes to First Nation development.
Looking back on the industrial revolution, Beardy said in his mind the fact that First Nation people missed out on that development has left them struggling to catch up ever since.
The broadband project and the opportunities that will come from high speed Internet in every community are crucial to ensuring that does not happen in the technological age, Beardy said.
“We’ve been pushing very hard to make sure young people have access to technology,” Beardy said. “But if First Nations don’t have the infrastructure, there is a danger we can get left behind. And if First Nations are left behind on this, we’ll be left behind forever.”
While NAN is not a financial partner on the project, it has set up a position – director of special projects (broadband) – to help coordinate First Nation involvement in the broadband initiative.
But getting the broadband installed is not the end of the line. Beardy called the technology “a backbone,” but noted that it will be up to the individual communities to make use of the technology.
“It is up to each First Nation to create programming,” he said, pointing to current telehealth and online high school programs already running in some NAN communities as an example of what the future may hold across the North.
Phases one through five
The Northern Ontario Broadband project is set up in five phases. Phase one, underway since the spring, had planned to finish 370 kilometres of broadband lines in three separate regions of northwestern Ontario. About 270 kilometres of line has been laid.
Contracts for phases two to four have already been awarded. Forty per cent of the work in those three phases was awarded to regional First Nation company ConCo in September.
The fifth phase covers lines from Summer Beaver to Webequie and east to Ogoki River. The contract for that phase has not been granted yet as Bell Aliant wants to see whether the first phases of the contract will stay on time and budget.
Bell Aliant spokeswoman Norma Hughes said the company has “every intention of proceeding” on phase five, but right now its “full intention is with projects one through four.”
As the first year of construction has shown, the broadband project is a complex undertaking over a huge landscape with a variety of potential problems.
The forest fires that raged across northern Ontario during the summer are one example of how the project could be set back.
Hughes could not say exactly how the fires affected the first year of construction, only that they caused “significant delays.”
There is also a tight time deadline for one portion of the funding. The federal government contribution of $23.3 million comes in part through Industry Canada’s Canada Action Plan stimulus money. That portion – $14 million – has to be spent by January 2012.
Meanwhile the partners are still waiting on approval from 17 of the 26 affected First Nations to access reserve lands.
Bell Aliant needs permission from each community to run the line from the edge of the reserve to the equipment on site. Currently only nine communities have submitted those approvals to Bell.
Travis Boissoneau, NAN’s director of special projects (broadband), said NAN has received verbal assurances from every community that the agreements will come, but many of the communities were delayed by the fall hunting season in getting the written agreements to the company.
Hughes cautioned that each agreement has to be in place before work can proceed on running a line to the community and that the company would be prepared as a last resort to remove the community from the project if the agreement was not received in time.
First Nation employment
One of the major benefits NAN extols about the project is the ability for local communities to get involved in construction and future maintenance of the broadband lines.
Beardy said the ConCo agreement is an excellent example of First Nation people benefiting from the employment opportunities of the project.
“Having our own construction company, it puts us in a position of advantage to maximize the labour portion with outside expertise,” Beardy said. “That’s one of our objectives, to maximize the benefits of jobs and economic spinoffs.”
Hughes also pointed to the communities of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug and Wapekeka, where the line work done this past summer was completed entirely by the communities, as examples of local First Nations can have employment benefits from the project.
While phase one has seen delays, the project’s proponents expect to have about 370 kilometres laid out by the end of the year.
Phase one also includes installing equipment to connect networks in Balmertown, Pikangikum, Savant Lake, Mishkeegogamang, Osnaburgh House and Pickle Lake to the main line.
Phase two is expected to lay about 470 kilometres of broadband line in 2012. Phase three plans for about 190 kilometres of line to be installed and phase four has about 1,100 kilometres planned.
Meanwhile, NAN is working on creating inventories of the people and skills available in each community to help contractors hire local people during the work.
Although there have been many questions from communities on the details of the project, Beardy said most First Nation people in Ontario’s Far North understand that the project holds great promise for the region.
“Any time you have a new idea, people have a lot of questions,” Beardy said. “But as long as we have control over what comes onto our territory, we stand to benefit.”
Visit www.nanbroadband.ca for more info about the project.
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