From the Magazine

Ensuring access to the internet of opportunity for Indigenous communities

Mark Buell

For more than 25 years, the Internet Society has been home to a global community of people dedicated to bringing the Internet to everyone. Our mission – to work for an Internet that is open, global, and secure – is as relevant today (and arguably more so) as it was when the pioneers of the Internet founded the organization in 1992. We know from our more than two decades of experience that when people get access to the Internet amazing things can happen.

From improved health outcomes to opportunities for education and economic progress, the Internet is virtually unparalleled in its capacity to create positive social change. It has become essential to how people around the world connect, communicate, create, and collaborate. For Indigenous Peoples, it is also a tool to support self-determination and autonomy, to forge relationships in and between nations and around the world, as well as preserving and promoting culture and language.

But while the Internet revolution has come to much of the world, there are still places that have been missed. Half of the world’s population remain offline, unable to enjoy the benefits the Internet has to offer. While we so often think of the digital divide as a global North-South issue, the fact is that some of those places that are not yet online are right here in North America, in rural and Indigenous communities that could benefit the most from the internet of opportunity.

In the US, 63 percent of residents on tribal lands still lack access to the Internet. In many Indigenous communities in Canada, Internet access is often characterized by high costs, low speeds, data caps, and poor or non-existent service. A significant digital divide in Canada and the United States persists, and it contributes to some of the challenges Indigenous communities face.

However, these numbers don’t tell the entire story. In reality, there are many success stories – networks across North America that are owned and operated by Indigenous communities; digital literacy programs that build on local culture and knowledge; Internet technologies used to promote Indigenous languages; and more. We are pleased to shine light on these stories in this special issue of Northern Public Affairs.

In 2017, the Internet Society hosted the inaugural Indigenous Connectivity Summit in Santa Fe, New Mexico. More than 200 community network managers/operators, Indigenous-owned Internet service providers, community members, researchers, policy makers, and Indigenous leadership came together to share their stories and experiences with Internet connectivity.

At the Summit, it became clear that the capacity to connect Indigenous communities exists in Indigenous communities. As Matthew Rantanen said in Santa Fe, “(Internet connectivity) can’t be brought in from some society that says, ‘this is what you need’…It has to come from the community.”

What is needed to bridge the digital divide are connectivity solutions driven by Indigenous communities, ones that connect communities at their own pace. At the Summit in 2017, the participants identified the following recommendations to make this happen:

  • Creative connectivity solutions that focus on sustainability.
  • An enabling environment of supportive policies, funding opportunities and public education.
  • Capacity building and education within communities.
  • Easier access to spectrum for Indigenous communities.
  • Collaborative backhaul solutions founded on future-proof technology.
  • Research on the state of Indigenous connectivity across North America.

The Internet Society is committed to continue to facilitate this conversation with and between Indigenous communities. In October 2018, the second Indigenous Connectivity Summit will take place in Inuvik, Northwest Territories. In Inuvik, we will work with our Indigenous partners and others to build on the outcomes of the 2017 Summit and continue to build and foster a continent-wide community of experts to support communities on their path to connectivity. ◉

Mark Buell is Regional Bureau Director, North America at the Internet Society.

You Might Also Like