Technological Touchstones and Community Cornerstones
How FSET’s Partnership with Pikangikum was Built
Located in the heart of Turtle Island roughly 250 kilometres north of Lake of the Woods, Pikangikum became a signatory of Treaty 5 in 1905, but remained largely independent well into the 20th century. Community members fought hard to hold on to their ways of life, living off the land and making the most of the boreal landscape that surrounded them. The Ojibwe language was also kept very much alive in Pikangikum, in what is a communal tradition that lives on to the current day. Many other First Nations hold Pikangikum in a high regard for its commitment to keeping and protecting all kinds of Indigenous Knowledge.
FSET Inc. is an Information Technology company based out of Kenora, Ontario, founded by life partners David (CEO) and Nicole (COO) Brown. As an IT company, FSET provides technology-based solutions to both the public and private sectors, delivering a range of software and hardware-based services for organizations both big and small. Owing to the power couple’s oversight, FSET prides itself on family values and a strong commitment to community both in and outside of the office.
Their story together begins in early 2017, when FSET first started working with the Pikangikum Health Authority to assist with its technological infrastructure. Almost immediately, it became clear to FSET that Pikangikum’s internet access was sorely insufficient – over 2,000 people were sharing roughly 1 gigabyte of bandwidth.
“It was sort of like an apartment building or a hotel where if everybody turns on the faucet at the same, and you’ve only got a half-inch of copper coming in, then nobody gets to shower,” said David Brown. “There’ll be next to nothing coming out of the taps.”
Back in Kenora, he and Nicole were unable to come to grips with the unfortunate reality Pikangikum was facing. The two knew full well that the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) had identified internet as a basic need the year prior, meaning the issue wasn’t just a new challenge for their company, but an outright matter of human rights that had fallen directly onto their laps – and that was before the community formally reached out to ask if FSET could come up with a solution.
“As a tech company, we understood the challenges of what not having access to internet could mean for others, what it means for an individual or an organization,” said David. “Most everybody has gone through it at one point or another. But for an entire community to not have access to quality of life through the internet – everybody that lives there, every program or service – we never really understood what that would mean, or how it would affect people.”
“I had a bit of a moment where I thought, these communities have had to deal with this since I’ve been in business, for over two decades. So, we set out on a path to see what we could do to change that.”
From that point on, bringing high-speed internet to Pikangikum became a passion project for the Browns, deeply rooted in both empathy and digital equity. At first, the company opted for the routine path – terrestrial fibre – which was and still is the primary means of internet access for Canadians. David started tapping different telecommunications companies, explaining the situation in Pikangikum and asking what kind of services could be offered.
Unfortunately, the response was underwhelming at best, owing largely to the First Nation’s remote location. Brown was forced to readjust the scope of the project, aiming to deliver a relatively low bandwidth speed to just five different key places in the community instead. Even with the bar lowered, and after eight months of trying, each telecommunications company was still coming up short. There simply did not exist a solution that was timely, cost-effective, and capable of actually getting the job done for Pikangikum.
“I was just frustrated,” David said. “I was frustrated for the community, and for myself having to go back and tell them that fibre wasn’t an option, that it couldn’t be done. It meant a lot to me that they were putting this trust in me – they asked me to go and do something, to help out somehow. So, instead, I went back and told them I would find another way.”
The whole time, Brown had been keeping a close eye on work of SpaceX, an American aerospace manufacturer and communications company owned by famed tech mogul Elon Musk. Based out of California, the SpaceX team had been hard at work developing Starlink, a high-speed internet service capable of beaming signals from humanmade satellite constellations in low Earth orbit (LEO). With no other potential solutions left on the table, Brown began to wonder – what if Starlink could be delivered to Pikangikum?
“I reached out through any and every avenue to try and find people who worked at SpaceX,” Brown said. “Friends of friends that went to school together, people on LinkedIn – chasing them down and saying ‘Hey, we’ve got a customer here, a community that’s in need, and this would go a long way for their quality of life.’ It was a bit of a Hail Mary.”
The CEO’s actions quickly became a running joke around the FSET office: Dave says he’s going to get a hold of Elon, yeah right. But in a move that practically no one saw coming, SpaceX did call back, leaving behind a message: I heard you’re looking for us. Pikangikum was, miraculously, officially on the radar of one of the most technologically advanced companies in the entire world.
“I started talking to them about the project and what it was we were trying to do, and the person I was on the phone with passed that information along,” David said. “Although I never spoke directly to Elon, in a roundabout way, I did get a hold of him – the file landed on his desk, he reviewed the proposal, and determined that this project was exactly what Starlink was built for, for underserved communities that needed broadband access.”
Pikangikum was to become what SpaceX calls an ‘angel account,’ a special customer that, in receiving the service, would also provide crucial preliminary information ahead of the company’s official Starlink beta. Located at roughly 51.9 degrees latitude – just barely below Starlink’s 52nd parallel cut-off point – the First Nation would also be home the kind of extreme weather that SpaceX needed to truly put its technology to the test.
Back in Kenora, there remained the matter of logistics. How exactly could FSET get the Starlink units from California to Pikangikum? Would the Canadian government even allow Ku band signals and LEO technology? Who was going to pay for everything? And of course – as the world was still in the midst of a pandemic – what about COVID-19?
To prevent the loss of momentum, FSET decided that it would cover the first round of installations – coming in at over $1,000 per dish – and then applying for the Universal Broadband Fund’s Rapid Response Stream (RRS), a pool of $150 million set aside by the government to help get rural and remote areas internet access. The Starlink units would get shipped to Kenora before being flown the rest of the way by a charter airline. And to get the green light, the company hired a relations firm and began lobbying with officials from Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED).
After much deliberation, on November 6, 2020, the government approved the use of Starlink and its specialized electromagnetic internet signals in Canada. SpaceX promptly began shipping Starlink dishes to Kenora, and by November 26, FSET was in receipt of 60 units ready for installation in Pikangikum. It was, at long last for the company and the community, officially go time.
The operation played out like something out of a Hollywood blockbuster: a team of professionals loading pallets of cutting-edge, never-before-seen technology onto a plane during twilight hours, just as a blizzard was beginning to enshroud the local airport. Equipped with anti-icing and synthetic vision, the plane in question just happened to be the only one in the airline’s entire fleet to be adorned with a phoenix, the mythological creature of resurrection and rebirth. Once the units were perfectly arranged, the aircraft took off for Pikangikum where community members were waiting happily to unload the cargo.
FSET technicians weren’t far behind, making the trip up to Pikangikum the following day to finish the job. The first Starlink unit to go live was at The Hub, the headquarters of the Pikangikum Health Authority, the very same organization that FSET had started out with so many years ago. No more than fifteen minutes after landing, company techs had Starlink up and running, connecting the community to the modern world for the very first time.
A speed test showed a download speed of over 130 megabytes per second, clocking in at a 2,166 per cent increase of the community’s former average. As a crowd began to gather, Dave Brown dialed into the community from Kenora. The video – including Brown’s ear-to-ear smile – was crystal clear.
By the end of the next day, the community’s band office, school, community centre, nursing station, and police headquarters all had Starlink up-and-running – not to mention 13 other important organizations and businesses. FSET treated the rollout like a training session for Pikangikum’s own tech crew, teaching them how to do future installations all by themselves.
Back at the Health Authority, staff members – especially those belonging to the organization’s pandemic team – quickly realized that having Starlink was the weapon they needed to start getting the upper hand against COVID-19. Video conferencing and telehealth were finally possible, and everyone who had been waiting to see a doctor but couldn’t because of the lockdowns now had the chance.
“It’s a long time coming,” said PHA executive director Billy Joe Strang. “The speed of the internet service in the community, it was really inadequate, especially with all that’s going on with the restrictions. If you e-mailed me a file that was over a megabyte long, the system would just time out, and it wouldn’t even download the document. That’s how bad it was.”
“This new project gives us a little bit of hope,” added Vernon Kejick, one of the organization’s coordinators. “It’s the start of a great thing. We’re able to reach out to the outside world.”
Meanwhile, at the local Ontario Province Police (OPP) detachment, most officers were brimming with excitement. Not only would their jobs now be easier, but they could now call and see their families while stationed in the community.
“We’re hoping that will help promote more officers to come and work in the North,” said now former detachment commander Jennifer Neamtz. “When they come here, they come on two-week deployments, often from all over the province, and like every other person, they miss their family.”
“From the perspective of policing, it’s sometimes very difficult to do business in a timely fashion. A lot of the challenges we see right now, we’re going to be able to overcome them due to Starlink. We’ve recognized new ways of achieving results, things that were not possible until this system came into place.”
At the community’s Eenchokay Birchstick School, Starlink set the stage for over 700 students and 100 staff to teach and learn online, providing yet another critical tool for Pikangikum in its battle against the pandemic.
“I think it’s ideal for the community,” said Kurt McRae, an HR officer for the Pikangikum Education Authority. “It’s obviously very fast, and I can only think of the difference it will make at the school. Right now, because of COVID-19, all of our instruction is online. I think it’s a blessing, really, and I think it’s going to have a huge impact in terms of improving educational outcomes.”
“The community depends on the internet for so many things,” added the school’s vice principal Maria Nanni. “To be able to operate on a platform like Starlink without having to worry about whether or not the internet is going to be reliable, or if it’s going to be too slow, I think that’s going to make a big impact.”
“At the school, we are operating on an online platform, so Starlink opens up a lot of doors. To be able to offer the students something more reliable is going to make a big difference. It makes it a lot more appealing to go online and do schooling if you know the internet is going to work.”
“I think Starlink will bring a lot of great things,” added principal Marvin McKay-Keenen. “Greater knowledge of the world outside of the community for the students, and it will allow us to offer teacher training programs to some of our staff as well.”
“I think there’s a need for communicating with other schools, other First Nation students and staff, and I think high-speed internet will make this easier to accomplish. Starlink is a very positive thing.”
For Chief Dean Owen, the benefit of Starlink for Pikangikum can be summed up in just one word: hope.
“Historically, our internet service has been very slow, not enough to provide any of those essential services that we really need in the community,” he said. “We’re hopeful that the community will now be able to handle a lot of communications and services, in terms of how health is delivered remotely, and education as well. It’s pretty exciting, and I’m sure that the community is just as excited as I am.”
Back in Kenora, it was mission accomplished for FSET and David Brown. Not only had the company achieved its goal of bringing high-speed internet to Pikangikum, but it had developed its own blueprint on how to do the same for any other First Nation in need.
“Of all the projects I’ve ever been involved with in over two decades, none made a bigger difference than this one,” said Brown. “We did something that changed the quality of life for the people that live there. To me, that is what it was all about.”
For the CEO, telling the story often brings a tear to his eye.
“It felt like a barn raising. It felt like it was a bunch of friends getting into a pickup truck and going over to a friend’s house to do what needed to be done, a team of people doing the right thing. Probably nothing has been more rewarding to me than to see this work through and have it be successful.”
“I am thrilled for the community,” added Nicole Brown. “Just seeing their faces, the first video conference call that we did and hearing their excitement – just that we were a part of the project, that we had the pleasure to help them get this far, it’s just awesome.”
“It’s a game-changer not only for Pikangikum, but all of Canada, particularly Indigenous communities who don’t have alternative internet services. The potential is really whatever can be thought up. Anything that you can think of that’s done virtually in another city can now be done in a remote community.”
“Miigwetch Pikangikum, Chief and Council, for not giving up, and thank you to the community for trusting us with this process and this project. And an incredible shout out to SpaceX, who heard the story, believed in what we were trying to do and really wanted to help. Thank you.”