Tuesday, May 10, 2005

BILL SANDFORD FOR THE TORONTO STAR

Opening a cottage country e-window


Bill Hay is bridging a Great Digital Divide

First Nation firm brings high-speed to reserve

ROBERTA AVERY
SPECIAL TO THE STAR

WAHTA FIRST NATION, MUSKOKA—The owner of a small First Nations company has brought high-speed Internet to cottage country to ensure that his people are no longer bypassed by broadband.

``We're bringing Wahta to the world,'' said Bill Hay.

His company Indigiinet Corp. is to begin installations of wireless broadband Internet service to homes and businesses on this tiny Muskoka reserve and to their neighbours in cottage country this week.

``We're so proud that one of our members has built that kind of business," said Sylvia Thompson, an elder among the 170 Mohawks living on the Wahta Reserve. "It's very exciting for us to be on the leading edge of the computer age like this.''

Hay, 44, and his wife, Darlene, are already successful entrepreneurs. Their Instapicphoto.com is one of the leading professional digital photographic companies in Canada.

Six years ago, frustrated by the slow speed of dial-up connections when emailing large photo files to clients around the world, Hay decided to seek other options.

``Connectivity was identified as being the biggest barrier to our business here in Wahta,'' said Hay.

When he approached the broadband companies and told them he was from Wahta, the response was not encouraging.

``They told us we were too rural, so we were on our own,'' he said.

Existing telephone systems that link much of rural Ontario can't offer broadband in the form digital subscriber line technology, commonly known as DSL, and cable service doesn't reach many rural areas. As of December 2004, according to Industry Canada data, that left 53 per cent of Ontario communities dialing up to get online.

Satellite broadband service was not an option because the upload speed was too slow for sending Instapic's huge files, said Hay.

He talked to other Wahta businesses, including a water-bottling plant, a haulage company and a building contractor. All said they were suffering the pains of the digital divide doing business on dial-up with a world increasingly wired for broadband.

``I realized our First Nation needed this, so I decided to do something about it,'' said Hay.

He and his wife believed so strongly in the project they cashed in their life savings and went into personal debt to raise the $250,000 needed to launch the company.

``There were no guarantees of funding, so I took it upon myself to finance this project.'' said Hay.

His sister, Sylvia Hay, who was the band's administrator and is now a band councillor, said her band is thrilled to be getting the service because it is becoming increasingly difficult for First Nations communities to function without high-speed Internet.

In an electronic world, government documents from Health Canada and others are now such large files that they are hard to download, said Sylvia Hay.

``It's so tedious using dial-up because the old telephone lines that service our community were never designed to carry data,'' she said, estimating the average dial-up connection speed at Wahta is only 19 kilobits per second.

Sylvia, who is also a host on Hawk 98.3 FM, the local radio station, said even it is hampered by the lack of high-speed Internet. Downloading a 10-minute clip from a news service can take more than an hour.

The reserve operates the Cranberry Marsh and ships orders all over the world, so high-speed access would help speed up order processing, she added.

At least two companies already supply wireless broadband Internet to parts of cottage country, but much of Wahta is not in ``line of sight" of transmission towers.

``Up until now there has been no affordable, reliable solutions,'' Bill Hay said.

He assembled a team of industry experts, developed relationships with telecommunications carriers and launched Indigiinet with the goal of supplying broadband not only to his own people but also to First Nations communities across Canada.

``The response has been overwhelming," said Hay, who is already working to bring broadband to First Nations communities in northern Ontario, British Columbia and on the East Coast.

Sylvia Hay hopes that, one day, all First Nations in Canada will have access to high-speed Internet.

``We exchange a lot of information nation to nation, so it will help us maintain relationships and forge new ones.''

Wahta's cottage-country neighbours have also been so interested that Hay is in the process of launching a wireless broadband service under the brand name ``Cottage, Home and Business High Speed."

Fibre-optic telephone lines bring broadband Internet service to a tower in Midland that relays wireless Internet signals to an antenna on top of a communications tower on the reserve, which in turn transmits Internet to homes and businesses.

Hay's tower operates at a frequency where a ``line of sight'' connection is not as critical and unforgiving as many are, so Hay hopes to offer high-speed Internet to everyone within a 10-kilometre radius. That area includes the community of Bala and some Lake Muskoka cottages.

The eventual goal is to build a series of towers ``just above the trees, so they don't spoil the natural beauty," to supply broadband Internet to all of Muskoka, said Hay.

With the existing tower, and by acting as wholesaler as well as distributor, Hay has managed to keep the cost down to around $200 per household for installation. That compares with as much as $1,200 charged by other wireless companies.

Monthly fees for home use are in the range of $50 for unlimited high-speed access, said Hay.

``Our goal is to make it affordable.''

Shirley Hay said she sees the new service as an economic-development opportunity for her people and as a chance for young people on the reserve to stay at home while pursuing careers in technology.

``It's going to open so many doors. We're all very excited.''

For an elder such as Thompson, the most important thing is the pride she feels about Hay's success.

``There are so many negative stories about First Nations people, so it's wonderful to have something positive like this happening in our community,'' she said.

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