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The proposal is signed by Chief Councillor James Hobart of the Spuzzum First Nation and more than 60 other chiefs from communities in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario.Handout

A group of First Nations leaders is calling on the federal government to release access to unused wireless spectrum over their traditional territories, saying such access could help bring high-speed internet service to their communities.

The proposal, outlined in a November letter to Innovation, Science and Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne, urges the minister to follow the lead of the United States, where authorities in 2019 created a “rural tribal priority window” to give Indigenous tribes better access to public airwaves.

“Well-established providers and their numerous platforms are not available in remote villages,” says the letter. It is signed by James Hobart, Chief Councillor of the Spuzzum First Nation, northeast of Vancouver, and more than 60 other chiefs from communities in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario.

“Access to such essential services as online doctors, shopping, education, counselling … COVID-19 vaccine registry – all imperative services in a state of emergency – are tragically missing,” the letter states.

The First Nations group is pursuing access to UHF, or ultra-high frequency, spectrum, which has been used by television broadcasters since the 1950s.

In 2015, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) set a moratorium on new spectrum licenses in the UHF band, which is ideal for rural connectivity, the group said in a briefing note provided to The Globe and Mail, adding that “the Canadian government has reserved access to this range of spectrum to broadcasters who have no intention of using it in rural remote areas.”

The lack of high-speed, reliable internet in First Nations communities has been identified as a barrier to health and economic development for years, and has become even more pressing during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Mr. Hobart, who is leading the proposal.

“My community is remote, we don’t have the benefits of telehealth, education – and that was well before COVID,” Mr. Hobart said.

“And then once COVID hit, we didn’t have the ability to have our kids home-schooled … we have really slow internet, and if more than five people get on it, it just dogs right out.”

Access to spectrum can help fix the “last mile” problem of connecting remote and rural communities and respond to Indigenous rights concerns, says Gregory Taylor, a spectrum expert and associate professor at the University of Calgary.

Why Canada needs free universal high-speed internet

“Canada is lagging right now,” Prof. Taylor said, citing initiatives in the United States and New Zealand to recognize Indigenous rights to spectrum.

“You would be hard pressed in the last 20 years to find any reference to Indigenous sovereignty in any document having to do with spectrum in Canada. This is something that we have kind of just utterly avoided,” he said.

Asked about the requested policy change, ISED spokesperson Hans Parmar said high-speed internet is a necessity for all Canadians, including Indigenous people, and that the Government of Canada is investing accordingly.

Mr. Parmar cited several initiatives, including $2.75-billion to support broadband projects through the Universal Broadband Fund.

“The Universal Broadband Fund’s (UBF) Rapid Response Stream (RRS) has announced 131 projects in 2021, and there are nearly 15,000 Indigenous households that will benefit from them. The UBF also allocated $50-million for mobile projects benefitting Indigenous Canadians, including an investment to connect the ‘Highway of Tears’ in British Columbia,” Mr. Parmar said in an e-mail.

ISED has issued four licences for spectrum in the UHF band for a one-year period to a company that indicated it would use the frequencies to offer service to Indigenous communities and ISED will be “closely following” that project, Mr. Parmar said.

That company is Burnaby, B.C.-based Advanced Interactive Canada Inc., known as Advintive, which has been working with Mr. Hobart on wireless concepts.

The ISED pilot only covers four communities and ISED has said it will not extend the licenses after the one-year pilot ends, said Advintive chief executive officer Karim Lakhani. He said he’d proposed a five-year trial involving more communities.

The pilot project also came without any funding, so Advintive will pay for the system itself, at a cost of about $500,000 for four communities in Saskatchewan, Mr. Lakhani said.

Advintive’s system, which employs rooftop antennas and technology that piggybacks on existing communication towers, is cheaper and easier to deploy than other systems such as fibre-optic connections, Mr. Lakhani said.

“The spectrum is available over all of these First Nations in rural and remote areas and nobody is using it,” he said.

ISED last year opened consultation for a new access licensing framework. In an August, 2021, submission for that process, Prof. Taylor flagged the issue of Indigenous rights to spectrum, citing a recommendation from the 2020 Indigenous Connectivity Summit that federal regulators must ensure that Indigenous governments and entities have first rights to spectrum over their lands.

“ISED needs to be at the forefront of making this a reality. I believe this should have been recognized in this consultation,” he said in the submission.

There has been talk of improving internet access in Spuzzum First Nation for at least a decade, but years have passed without much improvement, Mr. Hobart said.

According to federal figures, just 37 per cent of rural households had access to high-speed internet in 2017, compared with 97 per cent of urban homes. Only about 24 per cent of households in Indigenous communities had access.

“Because it is above our heads, above our unceded territories, please at least allow us the opportunity to try and utilize it,” Mr. Hobart said.

“It’s a resource that’s not being used by anybody.”

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