Professor and grant recipient Rob McMahon shares tips for Community Investment Program applicants

CIRA’s Community Investment Program begin accepting applications this month for its next round of grants. Rob McMahon, grant recipient and internet researcher in rural, remote and Indigenous communities shares his insights for applicants.

CIRA opens the application period for its Community Investment Program on January 15. As potential applicants prepare for this, we’ve reached out to a few individuals who can share their top tips and their insights on the kinds of projects that can address the priorities they see to build a better online Canada.

Rob McMahon has been a grant recipient of CIRA’s Community Investment Program and is an assistant professor at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Extension. He is a co-founder of First Mile Connectivity Consortium, a national non-profit association which is shaping digital policy to support community broadband with remote First Nations across Canada. Rob’s research focuses on the development, adoption and use of broadband and internet technologies by rural, remote, Northern and Indigenous communities.

With his deep knowledge of internet infrastructure Rob shares his insights about Canada’s digital divide and how the Community Investment Program can support projects aiming to bridge that gap.

In your opinion what is the greatest need right now in Canada’s internet?

Despite recent improvements in high-speed digital infrastructure, local connectivity remains limited and unreliable in many Indigenous, remote and northern communities, with high prices charged for services and data overage fees. This means people in these communities are losing out on opportunities in the digital economy and do not have equitable access to many of the online services available elsewhere in Canada.

To address this, we see dedicated Indigenous technicians like Bruce Buffalo in Maskwacis taking it into their own hands to improve local connectivity services in their communities. Bruce’s work is just one example of this kind of local innovation – however, we don’t know the full extent of the need in these communities. In its most recent Communications Monitoring Report, the CRTC reports that just over half of the households in the Northwest Territories can access broadband speeds of 16Mbps or higher. Given that almost half of the territory’s population lives in Yellowknife, it is clear that most communities lack full and consistent access to broadband. We need better data and support at the community level, especially in remote areas.

How have you seen needs around the Canadian internet change over the last few years?

We’ve been seeing more interest from government and the media in the last few years on bridging the digital access divide – which is a good thing. It’s great to get more public attention on key issues affecting Canadians. To build on that, there’s now a need for open, accessible data and a fair playing field for all providers. For example, the Auditor General of Canada pointed out in its Fall 2018 report on connectivity in rural and remote areas that small internet service providers did not have sufficient access to high-quality spectrum to support broadband deployment in rural and remote areas. This means there’s less competition for internet service providers in these areas so the price goes up.  This is despite the fact that spectrum licensees are not even using (or leasing) spectrum they hold, partly because there is little business incentive to make unused spectrum available for subordinate licensing.

A close-up up of the “Make the net-work” 3D model, which illustrates how a community network is set up. The team developed customized versions of this model for the four Gwich’in communities, part of Rob's digital literacy project funded by the Community Investment Program. Image credit: Hanne Pearce.

What other needs stand out for you?

While it’s good that people learn how to code and build websites, we also need to help people monitor their internet service. We should encourage digital literacy around how to test an internet connection to ensure people are getting what they pay for. People need to know how to report things like high data overage fees, so that regulators are aware what they are paying – particularly in areas with subsidized coverage. Digital literacy should pay attention to internet infrastructure as well as applications.

Our 2018 CIRA funded project – Digital literacy learning and resources with Gwich'in Tribal Council –demonstrates one way to build community-based internet monitoring into digital literacy programs. Our team has worked to explore innovation in Gwich’in contexts through workshops and the creation of open educational resources in the Northwest Territories. Another CIRA-funded project I’m involved in with three First Nations organizations and Cybera is evaluating internet speeds in Indigenous communities across Manitoba, Alberta and BC, and will share our methodology so other groups can also do so.

What kinds of projects would you like to see funded by CIRA’s Community Investment Program?

It’s important to support community network projects but we can’t forget about what happens once they get built – how do you sustain them? How can we scale them across Canada? Sharing results, challenges and data on these projects can have a huge impact, and CIRA can play a role in that. We are seeing increased interest – and success – for community networking projects. I think that is an important area of focus that can support local innovation in the coming year.


If your non-profit organization has an innovative internet project that will help build a better online Canada, apply for a Community Investment Program grant at cira.ca/cip between January 15 and February 28, 2019. 

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