When First Nations Fiber (FNF) connected its first customer to lightning-fast fibre-optic internet last month, the family’s delight was infectious.
“It got me excited. It got the technicians who were on-site excited about what was happening,” said Kameron Lahache, chief operating officer of FNF. “I mean, this is something that for myself, personally, I’ve been working on for over two years now.”
Despite the milestones, there have also been obstacles. As a result, the company will miss the September 2022 deadline it committed to when it accepted $5 million in government subsidies last summer under Operation High Speed.
By the end of September, the company was expected to have built out a network equipping 100 percent of Kahnawake households to be eligible for connection, the same deadline given across Quebec under the program.
Lahache told The Eastern Door that the company is expecting to have built out the majority of its network by that time, with the goal to finish by the end of 2022. It could take an additional year or two to connect the influx of customers.
Currently, the company’s service is available to just shy of 100 households out of 2,815 - about four percent - but plans to ramp up mobilization start September 6.
“The big reason why we ended up falling behind is because of all the preparatory work that needed to be done on the pole network,” said Lahache.
The poles, owned by Hydro Quebec and Bell Canada, had to be surveyed to determine whether they could handle the additional load of the fibre-optic equipment. Lahache estimated about a quarter of poles had to be corrected or replaced, work that has to be done by Hydro and Bell themselves.
Only once a pole is satisfactory can FNF obtain the permits to install the equipment.
While the funding contracts with the government outlined the possibility of stiff penalties for companies that fail to meet the deadline, Lahache said Quebec is aware of the delays and has acknowledged they were out of the company’s control.
The timeline was ambitious even before considering unanticipated problems, said Lahache. “It was always going to be difficult for us to be able to accomplish the objective regardless,” he said.
In addition to surveying and preparatory work, parts and labour shortages have exacerbated delays not only for FNF but for participating companies through-out Quebec, he said.
While surrounding communities such as Chateauguay and St. Constant have already achieved 100 percent service availability, Lahache said it’s an apples to oranges comparison. According to Lahache, Kahnawake started with zero percent access to high-speed internet as defined by the government - 50-megabit download speeds and 10-megabit upload.
Although FNF was the only Kahnawake internet provider to receive a government subsidy, the company is not the only game in town.
K Fiber Optic (KFO) connected its first customer in December 2021 and claims its competing fibre-optic network is already 60 percent built out, with an expected rate of 85 percent completion by the end of September. KFO defines 100 percent as about 2,650 homes.
“Business, I feel it’s going okay,” said Wallace Stacey, president of KFO. “I thought there would have been a lot more desire for high-speed internet as over the years I’ve heard many complaints.”
He said the company is fulfilling its mission to enable Kahnawa’kehró:non to do school and work from home.
“We offer a superb product with fantastic service, so I thought people would’ve been knocking down our door for that,” added Stacey, who said the company has connected more than 250 customers.
“Being on the outside of the subsidies hurts a bit because we were new coming into the industry, so we didn’t know all the opportunities that existed for help financially, and we only learned of that last August,” he said.
Lahache said he is impressed with what KFO has been able to do given the difficulty of building out a network.
“...They’ve earned my respect, to be honest, with what they’ve done and what they’ve been able to accomplish,” said Lahache.
Nevertheless, FNF remains focused on connecting as much of the community as possible as quickly as possible.
“We’ve been very fortunate with how things have unfolded for us, and we’ve made significant progress up to this point in time,” said Lahache. He said despite unexpected slowdowns, his goal is to ensure the work is carried out correctly and that the network is built to last decades.
“For me, it’s always been about the fulfilment of being able to do something that is going to genuinely make this community better,” he said.
Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eastern Door