A multimillion-dollar investment to provide increased broadband connection to First Nations, rural and northern Manitoban communities has a Westman company front and centre.
Based in Virden, RFNOW Inc. is a communications company that has partnered with the province’s First Nations to form Clear Sky Communications, which is in turn taking care of the project.
On Tuesday, the provincial government announced a contribution of up to $20 million toward the project. The total cost is expected to total $63 million.
The federal government’s Connect to Innovate program is putting forward $30 million, with private partners filling out the balance.
Phase 1 will expand internet access to mainly northern communities, but also includes the Westman communities of Gamblers First Nation and Birdtail Sioux First Nation.
This is "a great thing for Manitoba," RFNOW CEO Scott Andrew said, adding that there’s no limit to what communities can do once they’re linked up with high-speed internet.
Drawing from his own experience owning and operating the Virden-based technology company Custom Software Solutions Inc. as an example, Andrew noted that 90 per cent of his employees don’t work in Virden.
Although they used to have a development centre in Saskatoon, he said that he did not want to restrict their talent pool to just one city, so they closed it down.
"I didn’t want to have bricks and mortar restrict me to my talent pool for application developers," Andrew said, adding that thanks to internet access he has employees working in Brandon, Winnipeg, Philippines and Sweden.
"Fibre-optic communications to the north now opens up that whole pool of people to being engaged in the business that we do every day," he said. "To me, it’s huge."
With some households carrying one breadwinner, he said that these internet-based jobs affect more than the one employee and can have sweeping impacts on communities.
"This is a tremendous opportunity for Manitoba," he said.
There isn’t a clear timeline as to when communities will come on board, with Andrew describing the effort as a long-term partnership between his company and the province’s First Nations.
It’s an idea that has been percolating at RFNOW for the past couple years, ever since now-grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Arlen Dumas first met with them, and Andrew said that he suspects it has been in Dumas’s mind for much longer than that.
Clear Sky Communications is no flash in the pan, he said, adding that his company has a long track record when it comes to maintaining business operations.
His family formed Andrew Agencies Ltd. in 1913 as a general insurance and travel agency in Virden, and has since expanded into a multi-line brokerage selling insurance, financial services, travel and real estate.
"The family has always been about long-haul and quality of life in rural Manitoba," he said. "We’re invested, we’re not here to start and flip."
Once the initial phase is completed, the broadband project will include 10-gigabit ethernet fibre connections that will provide 72 communities with high-speed internet services on par with southern urban areas. Affected communities include 37 First Nations communities and 18 within remote regions of northern Manitoba.
A release issued by the provincial government notes that this project is part of their follow-through on the Look North Report and Action Plan for Manitoba’s Northern Economy, which was released in October.
This plan outlined a path that would build stronger partnerships and a brighter economic future in the north, and highlighted greater access to broadband as a priority.
» Twitter: @TylerClarkeMB