Jason Neepin smiles and shakes his head when he thinks of the times he has spent up North.  Neepin, a fortysomething Cree, heads up Broadband Communications North (BCN), a company moving toward the provision of broadband internet and cellular services for northern Manitoba First Nations.

Neepin knows a world where things you’re supposed to have exist, on paper. And they do exist, at least most of the time. “You’re always in need of something,” he says. “But pipes freeze in winter, furnaces go out in the dead of night and internet… well, let’s just say that we have a ways to go there.”

Knowing the North is a true advantage for Neepin as Executive Director of BCN. As he moves the company toward its ultimate goal, he understands the needs and nuances of living in a remote community and the people he works for.

 

For Neepin, it’s not just business, it’s personal. “I know what it’s like to have terrible internet, to feel disconnected from the rest of the world,” he says. “I lived in Fox Lake eight years ago and we had BCNI was a customer then—and the internet was so slow. It took forever to download anything, so I would take my truck and go to the band office and download things from their internet.”

Headquartered in Winnipeg, Manitoba, BCN offers C-band satellite from Telesat (an older technology) for 18 satellite communities and services over 80 rural, northern, and remote communities in Manitoba. What started as a grassroots Indigenous organization has grown into a leading internet service provider (ISP) able to provide the full range of technologies required to deliver connectivity to customers across the province utilizing satellite, fixed wireless, and fiber optics technologies. 

They provide a variety of Internet and data services to a wide range of customers, from residential to business. “As one of the largest Indigenous community networks in Canada, we exist because the larger tech companies refused to service our northern remote communities,” explains Neepin. “BCN started through SchoolNet, providing internet to northern Manitoba schools, and then we expanded into nursing stations. That’s our core business.”

Neepin has worked in his role with BCN for almost three years and is eager to bring “city internet” to all First Nations in the North, but the process is slow. BCN will connect three communities to fiber internet this year, but they need more support to better serve the other 26 communities on the waiting list. “Nobody else would service our market. We have old technology, but we are upgrading it consistently to get more communities connected,” he says. 

For this reason, BCN has requested over 400 million dollars from several funding agencies, including the federal government, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), and ISED Mobility to upgrade its network. 

“I truly believe in our mission and am so passionate about the work we do because it addresses issues of connection which are crucial in today’s society,” says Neepin. “It’s about fairness and equality and we try to represent those same values in how the business is run.” BCN is governed by a board of directors that includes representatives from six of Manitoba’s seven tribal councils and members of the independent bands Cross Lake and Nelson House. 

A third of BCN staff is Indigenous, and many in the IT field are from other countries, such as China, Hong Kong, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, and more. “We are a multinational corporation, but we aim to employ a minimum of 33 percent Indigenous employees at all times in various positions,” explains Neepin. The main office is located on reserve, which Neepin believes helps with Indigenous employee retention. BCN offers a comprehensive benefits package for their employees, as well as a gym membership for those interested because “we want our staff to be healthy and take care of themselves,” says Neepin. He also explains that staff turnover rates used to be quite high, so they underwent an evaluation process with a local HR firm to improve HR processes and increase staff retention. 

“We realized that our staff was being underpaid,” says Neepin, “and we were frequently losing people to Manitoba Hydro. Now we make sure our employees are taken care of, paid market rates, and that our management is paid appropriately.” Turnover rates are much lower now, which makes a world of difference for BCN and the quality of service they can offer. Taking employee retention one step further, Neepin explains how BCN hopes to increase pension benefits for employees as well. 

Austin Burtniak is the marketing and communications specialist for BCN and describes the office culture as welcoming, inviting, and accepting. “It’s nothing like I’ve ever experienced at another job before,” he says. “It’s encouraging to be in this space and around this group.”  Furthermore, Burtniak speaks to BCN’s role in economic reconciliation and empowerment.  “It’s about nation-building,” he says. “Part of BCN’s mission is providing equitable access to broadband, to all of Manitoba, and we’re doing it, two or three communities at a time. We want the same experience as everybody else in Canada.” 

BCN has made great strides as an ISP; however, they have encountered significant challenges along the way, such as with the Pallister government. “They basically handcuffed us,” Neepin says. “We have two communities, Pine Creek and Lake Manitoba, ready to be lit up; however, the Pallister government forbade any new hookups.” Both communities are equipped with the necessary tower and are ready to go, with the wire in the ground, but BCN is unable to tie into the dark fiber. “The hope is the new NDP government will let us tie in because all this dark fiber runs through our traditional territories. This is Manitoba’s dark fiber and there should be no reason the province and Hydro should deny us access to this,” shares Neepin who sees this as an important part of reconciliation in Manitoba. 

When it comes to the long-term goals of BCN, Neepin tells SAY Magazine they are looking to embark on a five-year project that will bridge the gap until a low-earth orbit satellite solution is available from Telesat. “Right now, we are working with two Ontario companies, PomeGran out of Toronto and Rock Networks out of Ottawa, to provide a short-term solution and, in the meantime, bring in fiber as best we can.”

BCN also happens to have three subsidiaries that others may not know about: Mahkesis, which provides local distribution for ICT products, including network, wireless and computing; Binesi, a training center where information and communications technology training is provided in Winnipeg; and INWave, a telecom company that will offer retail and enterprise connectivity services while providing First Nations with an opportunity to participate as partners and shareholders. “We also have exciting joint ventures with some of our partners in building fiber optics for some communities, so it’s a really exciting time,” says Neepin.  

With over 20 years of servicing communities in Manitoba, Neepin and his team look forward to increasing BCN’s capacity to connect more people and facilitate access to critical services through telecommunications for another 20 plus years.  

 

For more information on BCN, visit www.gobcn.ca

Photos courtesy of Broadband Communications North. 

 


Danielle Vienneau, Editor-in-Chief of SAY Magazine, believes in sharing positive stories to inspire greatness in others. To submit your story, email editor@saymag.com.