Internet Society's Indigenous Connectivity Summit 2018

Blog Post
Photo credit: Chris Ritzo.
Nov. 13, 2018

The Internet Society (ISOC) held its second annual Indigenous Connectivity Summit (ICS) October 11-12 in Inuvik, Northwest Territories and the pre-summit training day at the University of Alberta in Edmonton on October 9. I was honored to be asked to participate as an ally and present about Measurement Lab. But it’s really more important to lift up the work of the amazing people and organizations working to ensure their communities are able to fully participate in our connected, online world. For those interested in this work, you can watch the live-streamed version of the event.

The summit “focuses on ensuring indigenous communities can connect themselves to fast, affordable and sustainable internet.” The theme of this year’s summit was “connecting the last 1,000 miles,” which focused on the connectivity challenges in northern communities and the successes of Community Networks, both in Canada and around the world.

One of the most awesome aspects of the ICS was seeing the massive number of indigenous communities asserting their sovereignty over communications networks serving their nations. While surely incomplete, here’s a list of some great indigenous-owned and operated networks and related organizations:

From large scale, fiber to the home network operators to DIY free community WiFi networks, as well as advocacy groups, coalitions, and advisory groups, Native American and First Nations communities are connected and online, and they continue to fight for true broadband speeds where there are gaps. That fight, more social than technical, is rooted in historical colonialism and contemporary racist and paternalistic attitudes and policies. The First Mile Connectivity Consortium, a sponsor of the summit, provides a free online course that “explores the development of ICT in the context of settler colonialism and Indigenous resurgence.” Though the course is focused on the Canadian First Nation peoples’ experiences and history, the story is unfortunately very similar for Native American nations in the United States. I appreciated that The First Mile Connectivity Consortium provided this course as a resource for non indigenous people attending, since we often are not educated on the real histories of indigenous people in North America. It would have been an injustice to not acknowledge that history and encourage folks to inform themselves.

Coming from a background in community media and community networking, I really appreciated the script-flipping message embedded in the First Mile Connectivity Consortium's name. The “last mile” is a term that refers to the final stretch of the telecommunications network: the last link between the Internet and users. The common narrative of the “last mile,” however, frames people last. In the case of historically marginalized communities, it also contributes to the negative narrative of people having deficits instead of strengths. On the other hand, the “first mile” framing puts people first, making equitable access to the internet the primary concern for both those working on the ground building networks and those of us working in policy and academic spaces. Another major highlight at the summit were the connections between people working in these areas, showcasing strong, community-connected collaborations between local implementers, policy and governmental advocates, and researchers. Some of these stories were shared in a special edition of the Northern Public Affairs journal, published in conjunction with this year’s ICS gathering.

The inspiring conversations, presentations, and community interactions at ICS have given me a renewed purpose toward my own work on broadband and community networking. I was also energized by the community of attendees—some old friends, some new—finding again the shared vision we have for equitable connectivity in all of our communities. Thanks to the Internet Society for hosting and to the ICS community for lending their expertise, I’m looking forward to future possibilities.