Becoming A Community Service Provider



The Pathways to Technology project is introducing broadband connectivity to many BC First Nations for the first time, but along with the opportunities high-speed Internet provides comes the challenge of managing this technology.  

For some communities this may involve negotiating a contract with an Internet Service Provider (ISP) to be the vendor and manager of the network resources.  Other communities may not have an ISP available or may wish to take on the responsibilities for managing the network themselves – as an economic development opportunity or to keep control and autonomy of this resource within the Nation.  
For those communities, the First Nations Technology Council has developed a guide that describes what is involved in establishing an ISP operation. The helpful walkthrough outlines some of the key issues and questions to be addressed when deciding whether or not to operate a broadband network for the benefit of the community.
The guide directs the community’s focus to three keys: the business decision, operational issues and technology questions.  Predictably, the issues are related to one another, and the community’s response to these questions will help comprise the business model that establishes the viability of a local ISP operation.
The Business Decision
A community considering the option of becoming its own ISP can approach the decision in one of two ways.  First, it may choose to undertake the service because there are no other providers stepping forward and the community views connectivity as an essential service, much like a utility.  Second, it may view the ISP option as a business opportunity, with the possibility of creating both profits and skilled employment.  
In either case the analysis is the same; the community decision-makers must understand projected cash inflows and outflows from all sources, in terms of both magnitude and timing.  
Fortunately there is no need to start from scratch.  The guide provides an Excel spreadsheet with three tabs: one for capturing assumptions and community data, one for inputting financial details, and a third tab that displays the results of your new financial model.  The spreadsheet is step-by-step with helpful instructions along the way.
Operational Issues
At the same time as the community leaders are building the financial model and evaluating the sustainability of the business case, they must consider the responsibilities associated with managing and operating a broadband network.  While the basic service delivered by an ISP is to provide a connection from the user to the Internet, decisions will have to be made regarding the range of services that customers will expect to be provided and the key skills required to provide them. 
The guide avoids technical details and jargon, providing a simple outline of all of the major touchstones that will factor into the final decision. Those include core ISP services, administration, user support & maintenance, network monitoring, skill requirements, ISP responsibilities, regulatory issues and Internet governance.
Technology Questions
An Internet Service Provider is first and foremost a network manager, and a basic understanding of the technology deployed will be essential.  There are three main technologies involved with Internet connectivity for a community. 
First, the link from the World Wide Web to the community will provide the gateway or central connecting point at the community, commonly called the Point of Presence or PoP.  
Second, from this connection point the Internet signal is distributed to the facilities, homes and businesses through a "last mile” distribution network using telephone line, cable television connections, or wireless technology.  
Third, the network will require equipment and software to manage the online services, maintain the network and provide administration for the users on the network.
The Next Step
The final decision on whether or not to become a local ISP for your community will involve trade-offs and judgment calls in a number of critical areas including setup and maintenance costs, time to implement, access to poles, distances within the community and technical skills.  Given the complexity of the decision the community may wish to get advice from other communities, regional ISPs and other professionals.  
Conducting the appropriate due diligence will not lessen the inherent risk of the undertaking, but it will result in an informed decision and allow the community to take a measured approach, in which expected outcomes are reasonable and risks are identified and either eliminated, mitigated or accepted.
To download "The First Nations ISP Guide” free of charge, click HERE

Posted: September 24, 2012