First Nations-led company gets green light to set up high-speed internet in Northern Manitoba

Almost a year after the project was announced, Wekitowak Communications is finally ready to install around 3,120 kilometres of fibre optic cable throughout Manitoba.

Once completed, this network will provide 31 First Nations and 19 other municipalities with access to reliable, high-speed internet.

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Chemawawin Cree Nation Chief Clarence Easter is one of Wekitowak Communications’ biggest advocates right now and dropped by the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) offices in Thompson Oct. 22 to lay out the finer details of this $65-million endeavour.

“The network runs from Virden, Manitoba to Thompson to The Pas and all the way up to the western communities, all the way to Tadoule Lake, all the way up to the eastern communities like God’s Lake and God’s River,” he said.

According to a map provided by Wekitowak Communications, communities such as Norway House, Cross Lake, Nelson House and Shamattawa will also be getting access to this network’s 10-gigabit ethernet connection.

Easter told the Nickel Belt News on Monday that a project like this is definitely a necessity in today’s society, where schools, healthcare facilities, government offices and businesses rely on a steady internet connection to function.

He went on to say that this project was a long time coming for many First Nations throughout Northern Manitoba, where telecommunications infrastructure is inconsistent at best and completely non-existent at worst.

“It varies from place to place. Some have microwave connections. Some have satellite services. And depending on where you are, some of them have none,” said Easter. “We have microwaves in our community, but it’s very limited. We have about 160 homes that are connected, but everybody in those 160 homes are on them and it slows it down and sometimes the weather comes in to be a factor.”

While Wekitowak Communications is leading the charge on this massive undertaking as a majority First Nations owned company, they are getting a big helping hand from RFNOW INC.

Not only does this Virden-based internet service provider own a 49 per cent stake in Wekitowak, but it is also providing them with capital ($7.3 million) and their technical expertise throughout this whole process.

"We know how to do this. We have been doing it for a while, this is just a bigger project," said RFNOW chief operating officer Chris Kennedy in an interview with the Winnipeg Free Press.

Wekitowak is also receiving substantial funding through the federal government ($30 million), provincial government ($20 million) and other various funders ($7.7 million).   

When this project was originally announced back in January 2018, it flew under the banner of a company called Clear Sky Connections, although Easter said this entity is no longer involved.

“The project was almost allowed to be derailed by a negatively oriented and competing First Nations-led group that also submitted a proposal under the same criteria,” said Easter. “The non-successful entity has been misrepresenting their position and almost caused an entire region of Canada … that currently has minimal services to lose all opportunity to move forward and ensure all communities are connected.”

Once construction officially begins in November, Wekitowak Communications expects this new fibre optic network to be completed by March 2021.

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