Problems with digital development in Canada can be summarized through the experience of Bruce Buffalo and the Samson Cree Nation at Maskwacis, a hamlet of about 7,600 south of Edmonton in Alberta.
Like many residents of the reserve, Buffalo was frustrated with the high price and low quality of internet service available to his community. So, three years ago, he decided to do something about it.
Originally training to be a carpenter, Buffalo began by teaching himself basic networking. He decided to run an online campaign through GoFundMe to raise $1,500, or enough to pay for a year of residential internet access through his local satellite provider, plus some networking gear. After verifying with the provider that he was allowed to give away Wi-Fi access for free after he had paid for it, he did just that, effectively connecting about 30 residences to his own home service. He then ran another campaign, this time raising $7,000, to significantly expand this do-it-yourself network.
Buffalo then learned that Maskwacis had access to a fibre broadband network, but it was reserved for schools, government operations and correctional facilities. He set up a not-for-profit entity and soon after, Cybera, Alberta’s not-for-profit business incubator, chipped in with some bandwidth. The Maskwacis Cultural College and nearby Wolfpaw Data Centres also helped by providing some necessary services.
The effort has continued to grow. Now, up to 500 people can connect via 21 access points each day. Around 120 people are online at any given time, using download and upload speeds of up to 80 megabits per second, which is comparable to what many residential users in big cities have access to. A grant from CIRA’s Community Investment Program to Buffalo’s Mamawapowin Technology Society, meanwhile, keeps the service free for users. He says it’s the fastest and most reliable internet access available to his community. Buffalo believes he has built a model that can be exported to other First Nations reserves.
The Samson Cree Nation is better off now in terms of internet access than it was in 2017, but he warns that the improvement is precarious. He had to teach himself how to use the network’s hardware and software and he works long hours to maintain it. Given those factors, he doesn’t believe the network is sustainable in the long term, at least not yet.
“Right now it’s just me running it. I need higher-level training to bring this network up to almost enterprise quality level. We do a good job currently, but we need to worry about expansion and growth and we need skills to do that,” he says. “We also haven’t found anybody who’s willing to put in the work 24-seven, 365 days a year, because that’s what I do. I don’t know what will happen if anything happens to me.”
Buffalo's story exemplifies the most pressing internet issues in Canada. His do-it-yourself broadband network is a project borne of necessity – an increasingly vital piece of infrastructure built in a community that gets low priority from telecommunications companies, funded almost entirely by the goodwill of individuals and organizations.
Bruce Buffalo’s do-it-yourself broadband network on the Samson Cree Nation is a microcosm of the most pressing internet issues in Canada – a project borne of necessity built in a community that gets low priority from telecommunications companies, funded almost entirely by the goodwill of individuals and organizations, without a pipeline of committed skills to guarantee its continuity into the future.