Bringing the Net home
Community access key to wiring the North

by Richard Gleeson
Northern News Services

NNSL (Sep 08/97) - Community access, an effective means of introducing ordinary citizens to the Internet, is having a rough go of it in the North.

Organized and administered by volunteers and built with government funding and private-sector support, community access sites provide users with free use of computers and free Internet access.

Three NWT communities -- Yellowknife, Inuvik and Rankin Inlet -- offer free access to the general public.

By comparison, in the Yukon, which has about half the population of the NWT, 10 communities provide free Internet access.

Some, for a nominal fee or no fee whatsoever, provide users with their own electronic mailing address.

For those who cannot afford to spend thousands of dollars on a computer, or are not sure if the Internet is something they want or need, community access sites are an ideal starting point.

Though some Northerners, especially those who spend much of their time on the land -- far from an electrical outlet, much less an Internet connection -- more and more Northern-produced and targeted information is appearing on the Net.

And in communities where conventional mail service is slow or unreliable, e-mail offers an efficient way to exchange information on wildlife, hunting trips, weather and community news.

Yet there are relatively few people in the North now on-line. Only about six per cent of the population has accounts with private Internet service providers.

Two years ago, the territorial Department of Education teamed up with Industry Canada to bring community access to a number of Northern communities. The project wasn't thought through, however.

"In many places the equipment was bought, but the question of connectivity was not resolved," said Claude Hebert, communication access regional manager for Industry Canada.

Hebert said equipment bought is now in the possession of the department.

Part of the reason the initiative fell flat is the untimely departure of Rici Lake, a Department of Education official who spearheaded the drive. Lake left a year ago to help bring African communities on-line with the international development agency Oxfam.

He was not immediately replaced. Hebert said he understands the ministry plans to fill the vacancy in September.

Among the communities slated to get access were Igloolik, Kugluktuk, Cambridge Bay, Rae-Edzo, Fort Smith, Inuvik, Hay River, Pond Inlet, Kimmirut, Fort Providence, Iqaluit and Yellowknife.

Community access sites exist today in Yellowknife, Inuvik, Rankin Inlet, Iqaluit, Hay River and Fort Providence and Fort Smith, said Hebert.

Rankin Inlet has provided the community access model of the North. The driving force behind the site, known as Igalaaq ("window" in Inuktitut), Bill Belsey, said community access sites are vital to introducing newcomers to the Internet.

"I can tell you, that is the reason this site exists," said Belsey.

Igalaaq is run out of Leo Ussak elementary school. "We're developing a whole generation of kids who are going to be digital," Belsey said.

Though the initial thrust to provide public access had limited success, Hebert said Northern communities are showing increased interest in a funding program designed to encourage affordable access in remote communities.

The federal Community Access Program (CAP) provides one-time grants of up to $30,000 toward the cost of setting up a public access site.

"We ask communities to come with equivalent resources, including in-kind resources," said Hebert. "So if a community asks for $30,000 they have to demonstrate they have the equivalent amount in resources coming from other sources."

Last year two communities, Rankin Inlet and Tsiigehtchic, applied for CAP funding. Hebert said he is anticipating 15 more will apply this fiscal year.

Limited to communities of less than 50,000, the goal of the program is to fund up to 5,000 rural and remote community access sites by 2001.