A First Nation in Alberta is now in the business of providing high speed Internet.
Actually, the Bearspaw First Nation built and has been managing its own company, Stoney Nakoda Telecom, since 2015.
But on Feb. 1, officials from the First Nation announced they had acquired a 20-year-old company called Clearwave Broadband Networks, based out of Edmonton.
Clearwave has been providing high speed Internet to both homes and businesses in and surrounding Edmonton.
With Bearspaw First Nation now purchasing the company, the goal is to expand upon the success the First Nation has had with its own company. With its Clearwave acquisition, Bearspaw reps hope to not only share their knowledge and improve the connectivity on other First Nations but also provide a revenue boost to its own economic development portfolio.
Rob Shotclose, the CEO of the Bearspaw First Nation, said the work of Stoney Nakoda Telecom had essentially reached a plateau.
That company was founded to bring better Internet service to Stoney Nakoda First Nation, which is comprised of not only Bearspaw First Nation but also includes Chiniki First Nation and Wesley First Nation.
When it was launched seven years ago, less than 10 per cent of the 1,200 Stoney Nakoda First Nation homes had Internet service. And now today, more than 95 per cent of them do.
Shotclose believes the time is right for Bearspaw officials to expand.
“I think we’ve got some experience,” said Shotclose, who is a Bearspaw First Nation member. “We’ve built our own network on reserve.”
Jim Sand, who is Metis and has been working as the chief financial officer for Bearspaw First Nation for the past two years, also thinks it’s an ideal time to expand its Internet providing services.
“Since I’ve been here, we’ve engaged with other First Nations,” Sand said. “They’ve seen what we’re doing and they’re impressed and want the same.”
Bearspaw First Nation spent $4 million to buy Clearwave Broadband Networks.
“It’s a good opportunity for us to step in and see how we can grow it,” Shotclose said. “It’s a small company. They’ve got a good niche though around here in Edmonton.”
Shotclose said it won’t be too long before Bearspaw officials announce which First Nations and communities they will start providing Internet services to, either by building up new networks or starting to manage existing ones.
Most of those are expected to be within the province.
“I think there’s some opportunities outside of Alberta too,” Shotclose said, adding he believes officials from his First Nations can provide a more customer-friendly service than some current Internet giants.
“With the big companies now, they don’t listen to the little guy,” he said. “You’re not exactly Number 1 on their list for your problems that you have in your community.”
Sergei Lutzak founded Clearwave Broadband Networks and had operated the company out of Edmonton.
Though Bearspaw First Nation is located about 340 kilometers south of the Alberta capital, the company will continue to be based in Edmonton.
“It simply gives us a platform to grow this business off reserve,” Sand said.
He’s looking forward to doing his part to make the business prosper.
“I’m a finance guy,” he said. “And I’ve spent my whole career building up companies.”
The creation of Stoney Nakoda Telecom resulted in five full-time on reserve jobs for members of Bearspaw and Chiniki First Nations.
Non-band members will have to be hired to take over Edmonton operations since it is believed that no members from that First Nation are suitable for the jobs are currently living in the city.
Besides Alberta, Sand said First Nations located in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan have been in touch with Bearspaw officials in the last couple of years to inquire about Internet services.
“Could it be Canada-wide? Could it be worldwide? I think so,” Sand said.
Bearspaw First Nation had received funding via the Alberta government and its Final Mile Rural Connectivity Initiative, as well as the Treaty 7 Economic Development Fund to launch Stoney Nakoda Telecom.
Shotclose said the COVID-19 pandemic has further raised awareness about the importance of having reliable Internet.
“It’s so vital now with COVID, especially with online learning and working online,” he said.