Prototype could connecting remote, rural and Indigenous communities
In this story you'll learn about ...
- the impact of Canada's "Digital Divide," including the disproportionate effect on Indigenous communities
- the approach taken by two Wireless Systems Engineering Technology students to address the lack of internet connectivity at an Indigenous community in Saskatchewan
- why Starlink satellite internet may be part – but not all – of the answer
- why community-led, "DIY" internet is an achievable goal
Approximate reading time: 8 minutes
Patrick Potiuk (Wireless Systems Engineering Technology ’22) grew up well connected. He lived in a suburban city near Edmonton and never worried about access to the internet.
In fact, he spent much of his life in virtual environments. He’s tech savvy and, as part of the gaming community, the type who has friends online he’s never met in person.
For Potiuk, the web was like electricity or clean water. A given.
Then, a few years ago, an old friend – a gaming buddy, but one he knew in person – moved permanently out of town to a family cabin. It wasn’t off-grid, but getting WiFi, says Potiuk, involved a drive to a store on the highway.
With that, the friends were cut off.
That loss put him in mind of a bigger issue. As a member of the Métis Nation of Alberta, Potiuk knows of the impacts of that lack of connection elsewhere, too. He has cousins who grew up in small communities where internet access was not a given. That’s a situation experienced by 80% of Indigenous communities in Alberta, and more than half of those across Canada.
When the time came for Potiuk to reconsider a career in his mid-30s, COVID-19 having undermined his prospects in the hospitality industry, he enrolled in Wireless Systems Engineering Technology thinking he might help rectify the disconnection.
“There has to be a way to create access,” he thought, for reserves and remote and rural areas in Alberta.
Governments are thinking the same way. The province aims to connect every Albertan, at an estimated cost of $1 billion.
Full service delivery is projected for 2027 – well after the height of the pandemic that moved reliable high-speed internet from nice-to-have to need-to-have.
In the meantime, there may be a solution – one that Potiuk, with classmate Jeanne Anselmo (Wireless ’22, Mechanical Engineering Technology ’18) and program chair Dr. Kevin Jacobson, developed as a capstone project for Saskatchewan’s Muskeg Lake Cree Nation.
Their proposal combines physical principles now well over 100 years old with space-age tech and a strong work ethic.
In theory, it could bring online almost any community in Canada right now.
“This solution could be used as a prototype anywhere,” says Jacobson.
The community of Muskeg Lake Cree Nation comprises roughly 400 people across 60 square kilometres.
Given the sparse population density and lack of nearby infrastructure (in this case in Saskatoon, 93 kilometres south) it’s perhaps unsurprising that a major provider hasn’t been motivated to run fibre-optic internet to each individual household at Muskeg Lake.
And so, the community lacks access to fast, reliable, reasonably priced connectivity.
The possibility of changing that came to Jacobson because of Steven Wiig, who has worked with the band as a coordinator for several years and rents a farmhouse near the reserve.
A couple of years ago, Wiig helped Muskeg Lake set up a greenhouse food-production project. It’s powered by a solar array installed with the help of Light up the World (LUTW), a non-profit that at the time was also working with Jacobson’s students on a separate project to bring WiFi to remote communities in Peru.
When LUTW staff talked to Jacobson about ideas to address the local lack of connectivity at Muskeg Lake that they learned about from Wiig, the inequity of internet access in Canada had already been weighing on the program chair. “That’s been brewing in my mind for a while,” he says. “I wasn’t sure what to do about it.”
Working with Wiig, he assigned the challenge as a final-year capstone project to Potiuk and Anselmo. It struck him as solvable, largely because the Muskeg Lake band office had a fibre connection that could be tapped into to serve the whole community.
“The idea was, how do we take an internet connection and then distribute it?” says Potiuk, who now works in the spectrum and telecoms sector at Innovation Science and Economic Development Canada.
“What we built, essentially, [was] a DIY wireless internet service provider.”
With Jacobson’s guidance, Potiuk and Anselmo explored the possibilities from a NAIT laboratory equipped with transmitters, receivers, parabolic dishes, software and, of course, a reliable internet connection that would furnish them with all the information they’d need about the terrain at Muskeg Lake, 500 kilometres east.
One of the keys to working from a distance, says Anselmo, was “making good use of databases.” If you “know what you’re looking for,” he says, free ones can be found online that provide enough topographical data to guide placement of equipment to account for impenetrable hills and forests.
After that, the guiding principle was simplicity. The team endeavoured to build “something that the community should be able to install, monitor and upgrade as they need,” says Potiuk, and without the need for a third-party provider. That involved an access point wired into the band office like an extension cord for the internet, then sending the signal via the airwaves to antennae attached to the homes of community members.
“What we built, essentially,” says Potiuk, “[was] a DIY wireless internet service provider.”
But because of distance from the band office or those hills and forests, they knew that signal wouldn’t reach every home. To cover gaps, the students investigated using a Starlink internet receiver separate from that band-office access point, tapping into a network of thousands of low-earth orbit satellites.
But the Starlink receiver would reveal the limits of what the team could do. Potiuk and Anselmo concede that satellite internet is not currently an ideal solution, despite being the only solution when a land-based connection is impossible. Starlink’s network becomes considerably less dense north of 53 degrees of latitude, leaving Muskeg Lake (and Edmonton, incidentally) with a less reliable connection until the network improves according to the company's plans.
But ultimately, the two access points working in concert could connect an entire community for a few hundred dollars a month, says Potiuk (after the initial cost of equipment).
“I thought it was brilliant,” says Wiig of the solution. “I was really impressed by it.” He recalls the trouble the band council had communicating with members during the pandemic. He also knows that installation of equipment for his own connection near the reservation cost nearly $600.
Though Wiig appreciates the proposal, and sees it as a model that similar communities could follow, he also acknowledges its underlying challenges.
“The reality is that it would require us starting our own mini company,” says Wiig. “We have one IT guy.”
“They deserve more”
Yet, such measures may represent the most immediate fix for a problem that disproportionately affects Indigenous communities. Anselmo now works as a communications specialist with a large company in the Peace River region, maintaining tower sites and radio equipment. He sees underserved reservations daily.
“They deserve more than what they’re getting,” says Anselmo.
Derek Thunder, manager of the Nîsôhkamâtotân Centre, where Indigenous and non-Indigenous students can gather at NAIT and access resources, knows that part of the problem is logistics.
“It all has to do with infrastructure; it has to do with where First Nations are located,” he says. “Some are so remote that it costs a lot to [install] infrastructure.”
But Thunder and other staff members at the centre, each of whom come from Indigenous communities around Alberta, are all too familiar with the impacts of poor connectivity.
Most recently, centre staff saw Indigenous students outside of big cities struggle to participate in virtual classes.
“It really came to light in the pandemic,” says Thunder. A WiFi signal snagged by a smartphone wasn’t good enough – they needed reliable connections to actual computers. “If you’re trying to link in with regards to homework, it’s impossible.”
"We’re here in this land together, so we need to be included.”
Support staffer Sharyn Cree doesn’t know how she would have managed in that situation. Twenty-five years old, she’s part of a generation believed to have always enjoyed the instant-access advantages. But life was different for Cree, who grew up on Fort McMurray 468 First Nation. Despite being just 30 minutes southwest of Fort McMurray, her community wasn’t connected.
“Everyone in town had it,” says Cree. “I remember being embarrassed. I didn’t have it, and everyone else did.
“My dad still doesn’t have WiFi on reserve,” she adds.
“We’re left behind in everything,” says aboriginal liaison specialist Dawn Lameman (Bachelor of Business Administration '16, Accounting '12). “This all goes back forever. We’re here in this land together, so we need to be included.”
Regardless of the timelines announced by governments, Thunder isn’t confident the problem will be solved soon. “They were shooting for 100% [clean] water access, too, and they didn’t get that,” he says.
For that reason, Anselmo and Potiuk’s proposal holds promise for Thunder – at least in an ideal situation in which Indigenous communities have the appropriate resources and expertise.
“It may solve some of the problem,” says Thunder. “It would benefit regardless because no one is putting in the effort in the meantime.”
An achievable goal
Muskeg Lake Cree Nation has indicated that it will likely seek a permanent solution from a larger provider, says Jacobson, such as the one currently furnishing the band office with its fibre-optic connection.
As Wiig suggested, a single IT pro can’t easily install, adjust and maintain the equipment to connect their community.
Eventually, when governments across Canada deliver as promised, that connectivity will come, and kids in towns, reservations and rural areas will grow up with equal access to opportunities; none of them will need to be embarrassed about being on the wrong side of the digital divide.
But until then, the work of Potiuk and Anselmo – which earned a 2022 nomination for capstone project of the year from the Association of Science and Engineering Technology Professionals of Alberta – shows that waiting might not be the only option.
“The goal is achievable,” says Potiuk.
“Between the communities, governing bodies, students, technologists and engineers, we can find these solutions. Knowing that it can be done can offer a little more hope. You get that ball rolling, who knows where it can go from there.”