Bridging the Digital Divide: NAIT students tackle Canada’s connectivity problem

The prototype could connect remote, rural and indigenous communities

Patrick Potyuk (Wireless Systems Engineering Technology ’21) originated a good connection. He lived in a suburb near Edmonton and didn’t worry about internet access. In fact, he has spent most of his life in virtual environments. He’s tech-savvy and, as part of the gaming community, the kind who has online friends he’s never met in person.

For Potiuk, the web was like electricity or clean water. Given.

Then, a few years ago, an old friend—a gaming buddy, but one he knew personally—moved permanently out of town to a family cabin. It wasn’t off the grid, but getting WiFi, Potyuk says, required a drive to a store on the highway. With that, friends were cut short.

This loss brings him into view of a larger issue. As a member of the Métis Nation of Alberta, Potiuk knows the effects of this lack of connection elsewhere, too. He has cousins ​​who grew up in small communities where access to the internet was not taken for granted. This is the situation experienced by 80% of Aboriginal communities in Alberta, and more than half of them across Canada.

When it came time for Potyuk to reconsider his career in his mid-30s, after COVID-19 undermined his prospects in the hospitality industry, he enrolled in a wireless systems engineering tech thinking it might help patch up the disconnect. He believed that “there must be a way to provide access” to the reservations and remote and rural areas of Alberta.

Gene Anselmo, Knight Graduate in Wireless Systems EngineeringGovernments think the same way. The province aims to connect all of Albertans at an estimated cost of $1 billion. Full service is expected in 2027 — long after the peak of the pandemic moved reliable high-speed internet from a good thing to a necessity.

In the meantime, there may be a solution – a solution is Potiuk with a classmate Jane Anselmo (Wireless ’21, Mechanical Engineering Technology ’18) and Program Leader Dr. Kevin Jacobson, were developed as the capstone project for Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan.

Their proposal combines 100-plus-year-old physics principles with space-age technology and a strong work ethic. In theory, the Internet could bring almost any community into Canada right now.

“This solution can be used as a prototype anywhere,” says Jacobson.

DIY Internet

Rooftop wireless internet service provider equipment is being tested at NAIT's main campus

The Muskeg Lake Cree Nation community is home to about 400 people over 60 square kilometers. Given its sparse population and lack of nearby infrastructure (in this case in Saskatoon, 93 kilometers south) it’s perhaps unsurprising that a major provider wasn’t eager to roll out fiber-optic internet on a per-family basis in Muskeg Lake.

Thus, society lacks access to fast, reliable and affordable communication.

The possibility of changing that came to Jacobson because of Stephen Wiig, who had worked with the band as an arranger for several years and rented a farm near the reservation. Two years ago, Wiig Muskeg Lake helped set up a greenhouse food production project. It is powered by a solar array installed with the help of Light up the World (LUTW), a nonprofit organization that at the time was also working with Jacobson’s students on a separate project to bring WiFi to remote communities in Peru.

When LUTW staff spoke to Jacobson about ideas for addressing the local lack of connectivity in Muskeg Lake that they learned from Wiig, the inequality of Internet access in Canada weighed heavily on the head of the program. “This has been brewing in my mind for a while,” he says. “I wasn’t sure what to do about it.”

Working with Wiig, he assigned the challenge as the final year’s capping project to Potiuk and Anselmo. It struck him as solvable, in large part because the Muskeg Lake band office had a fiber connection that could be leveraged to serve the entire community.

“The idea was, how do we take an internet connection and then distribute it?” says Potiuk, who now works in the spectrum and communications sector at Innovation Science and Economic Development Canada.

“What we built, basically, [was] DIY Wireless Internet Service Provider. “

With Jacobson’s guidance, Potiuk and Anselmo explored the possibilities of a NAIT lab outfitted with transmitters, receivers, parabolic dishes, software and, of course, a reliable internet connection that would provide them with all the information they needed about the terrain at Muskeg Lake 500 kilometers east.

One of the keys to working remotely, Anselmo says, is “good use of databases.” If you “know what you’re looking for,” he says, free kits can be found online that provide enough topographic data to guide equipment placement to calculate impenetrable hills and forests.

After that, the guiding principle was simplicity. The team sought to build “something that the community should be able to install, monitor, and upgrade as needed,” says Potiuk, and without the need for a third-party provider. This involved a wired access point to the range office like an extension cord for the Internet, and then sending the signal over the airwaves to antennas connected to the homes of community members.

“What we built basically,[was] DIY Wireless Internet Service Provider. “

But because of the distance from the division office or those hills and woods, they knew that signal wouldn’t reach every home. To cover the gaps, the students investigated using a Starlink Internet receiver separate from the range office access point, by tapping into a network of thousands of low-Earth orbit satellites.

Starlink network map

But the Starlink receiver would reveal the limits of what the team could do. Potiuk and Anselmo acknowledge that satellite internet is not currently an ideal solution, despite it being the only solution when a terrestrial connection is impossible. The Starlink network ends at about 53 degrees latitude — which puts Muskeg Lake (and Edmonton, by the way) on the brink of a reliable connection. Until this network extends north as planned, connectivity can sometimes be spotty.

But in the end, two access points in concert can connect the entire community for just a few hundred dollars a month, Potyuk says (after the initial cost of the equipment).

“I thought it was cool,” Wiig says of the solution. “I really liked him.” He recalls the trouble the marching band board had with members during the pandemic. He also knows that it cost nearly $600 to install the equipment for his own hookup near the reservation.

Although Whig appreciates the proposal, and considers it a model that similar societies can follow, he also acknowledges the challenges inherent in it.

“The truth is, it’s going to take us creating our own little company,” says Weig. “We have one IT guy.”

“They deserve more.”

Musk Lake wireless internet coverage map

However, such measures may represent an urgent solution to a problem that disproportionately affects indigenous communities. Anselmo now works as a communications specialist with a large company in the Peace River area, maintaining tower sites and radio equipment. Sees underprivileged bookings daily.

“They deserve more than what they get,” says Anselmo.

Derek Thunder, director of the Nîsôhkamâtotân Center, where Indigenous and non-Indigenous students can congregate at NAIT and access resources, knows part of the problem is logistics.

“It all has to do with the infrastructure. It has to do with where the First Nations are.” “Some are so far away that it costs a lot [install] Infrastructure.”

But Thunder and the other staff at the center, all of whom come from Indigenous communities across Alberta, are acutely aware of the effects of poor connectivity.

Recently, center staff have seen Indigenous students outside the major cities struggle to participate in virtual classes.

“He really showed up in the Pestilence,” says Thunder. The WiFi signal that the smartphone was disrupting wasn’t good enough – they needed reliable connections to their actual computers. “If you’re trying to relate in terms of homework, it’s impossible.”

“We are here on this earth together, so we need to be included.”

The support worker, Sharyn Cree, doesn’t know how she would have managed in this situation. She is twenty-five years old, and part of a generation that is believed to always have the benefits of instant access. But life was different for Cree, who grew up in Fort McMurray 468 First Nation. Despite being only 30 minutes southwest of Fort McMurray, its community was not connected.

“Everyone in town had it,” Cree says. “I remember being embarrassed. I didn’t have it, and everyone else did.

“My dad still doesn’t have WiFi in the reservation,” she adds.

‘We are left behind in everything,’ says the Indigenous communication specialist. Dawn Lahmann (Bachelor of Business Administration 16, Accounting 12). “It all goes back to forever. We are here on this earth together, so we need to be included.”

Regardless of the timelines announced by governments, Thunder isn’t confident that the issue will be fixed soon. They were shooting at 100 percent. [clean] Water access too, and they don’t have that,” he says.

For this reason, Anselmo and Potiuk’s proposal bodes well for Thunder—at least in the ideal situation in which Indigenous communities have the appropriate resources and expertise.

“It might solve some of the problem,” Thunder says. “He’ll benefit regardless because no one is making the effort in the meantime.”

achievable goal

Wireless internet service provider equipment on the roof of the buildingMuskeg Lake Cree Nation has indicated that it will likely seek a permanent solution from a larger provider, Jacobson says, such as the one currently furnishing the band’s office with its fiber-optic connection. As Wiig suggested, an IT professional cannot easily install, modify, and maintain the equipment to connect their community.

In the end, when governments across Canada fulfill their promise, that connection will come, and children will grow up in cities, reservations, and rural areas with equal access to opportunity; None of them would need to be embarrassed about falling on the wrong side of the digital divide.

But until then, the work of Potiuk and Anselmo — who received a 2022 nomination for Project of the Year from the Association of Science and Engineering Technology Professionals in Alberta — shows that waiting may not be the only option.

“The goal is achievable,” Potyuk says.

Among communities, governing bodies, students, technologists, and engineers, we can find these solutions. Knowing that it can be done can provide more hope. You get that ball rolling, who knows where it could go from there.”

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