Delivering digital equity
Along with her business partner David, ND alumna Nicole Brown is leveraging her IT firm to serve Indigenous communities across Canada
Published: August 11, 2022 / Author: Katie Rose Quandt
Published with permission from Pikangikum First Nation.
In 2019, Nicole Brown (EMBA ‘09) and her husband, Dave Brown, received an unusual request at FSET, an Information Technology company they own and operate together in Kenora, Ontario, Canada.
The client was Pikangikum First Nation, a fly-in Indigenous community in Northwestern Ontario. FSET had previously worked with the community as their IT provider. But now, residents explained that the community needed something even more fundamental: an internet connection capable of properly supporting local organizations and businesses. With download speeds of just 60 Kbps (far too slow to stream a song or load a video), the community’s then-fiber-based infrastructure meant critical services like virtual schooling and healthcare teleconferencing were inaccessible.
At face value, the request was well outside the scope of the company, as FSET’s “bread and butter” consisted of providing network and security solutions for large clients, particularly in the public sector. But unlike its competitors, FSET is headquartered in Northwestern Ontario — 1,100 miles from Toronto and a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the nearest city, Winnipeg, Manitoba.
“We are in a very pristine, lovely, beautiful place in the world, full of lakes and wildlife. But with that comes significant challenges to digital infrastructure and connectivity,” says Nicole Brown.
Because of its location, many of FSET’s clients are Indigenous communities, and its proximity gives the company an unusual stake, as well as a unique understanding of the challenges rural and remote communities often face.
Thanks to this work, the Browns know more than most about Canada’s need for digital equity. When Indigenous communities are excluded from modern tools and technologies, their educational and business opportunities, access to resources, and power and influence in modern society are sharply limited — exacerbating socioeconomic gaps in the process. Digital inequity represents the latest iteration of centuries of exploitation and divestment from these communities.
Plus, the year prior, the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) had identified internet as a basic need. For the Browns, 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.
“It’s a recurring theme here in Northwestern Ontario that the North often gets forgotten,” says Nicole, who now works at FSET as the company’s Chief Operating Officer. “And that’s why we want to be able to say, ‘There’s a company here doing really cool and important things – we’re by the North, for the North.’”
“When we had the opportunity to do something good, we had to jump on it,” she said. “If we didn’t do it, who was going to?”
“We’re going to find a way”
Nicole Brown isn’t one to shy away from a new opportunity. She grew up in Ohio and completed a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Cincinnati, then earned an Executive MBA through Notre Dame while living and working in Chicago. During her final semester in 2009, she met her future husband and business partner, Dave Brown, on an online dating site. He lived nearly 800 miles to the north in Kenora, Canada, but Nicole knew almost instantly that packing her bags and hopping on a plane to start something new was the right decision to make.
In beautiful Kenora, the Browns grew FSET from a small business into a major IT consulting firm and one of region’s premiere companies. Nicole helped hone the company’s vision for nearly a decade before deciding to leave the public-sector entirely and focus on FSET full time. Today, the company boasts a “mighty team” of 20 people, with Nicole and Dave sharing ownership and leading together as COO and CEO, respectively. She notes, “It’s not ironic that we both now own an IT company, when we met online.”
Nicole and her husband brought that same readiness to tackle anything to Pikangikum’s request for functional internet speeds. “We heard the challenge and said, ‘We’re going to find a way,’” she recalled.
First, FSET looked into upgrading the community’s existing fiber infrastructure. “We spent the better part of eight months trying to find a way with the traditional [telecommunications companies],” she said.
When the Browns realized that terrestrial options would take too long and too much money to build, they looked instead to the sky – or more specifically, high-speed internet delivered via satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO), which beam broadband signals to receivers installed at the ground level. One of the more prominent LEOs, Starlink, is a direct-to-consumer service owned and operated by SpaceX. The Browns thought, why not them?
“Dave, my husband basically looked at our leadership team and said, ‘I’m gonna get a hold of Elon [Musk, who owns SpaceX],’” recalled Nicole. “We all said ‘You’re crazy,’ but then we all looked at each other and thought we better buckle up, because he’s serious.”
After exhausting every connection they could think of – including making cold calls through LinkedIn – FSET managed to get SpaceX on board with making Pikangikum its first Canadian Starlink client. Next, both parties needed approval from the Canadian government. When that came through in November 2020, FSET deployed the receivers, called Starlink kits, to the First Nation within weeks.
“My focus was on logistics – planes, people and equipment,” said Nicole. “I was chartering flights to move kits, and people, and ladders, and bricks [used to fix some receivers onto roofs]. I never in a million years dreamed that I would be calculating weights for an airplane to make sure that we can get every possible piece of never-before-seen technology to the North.”
Meanwhile, community partners on the ground coordinated the order in which kits would be installed on homes and businesses, working in tandem with FSET technicians to complete the work. “We wanted to really teach how to do this, so that when more kits arrived, the community could do it on their own,” Nicole said.
Just 15 minutes after the devices were set up, internet speeds in Pikangikum hit 130 Mbps — more than 2,100 times faster than pre-Starlink speeds of 60 Kbps. Instantly, community members gained access to critical services during the COVID-19 pandemic, including virtual healthcare, government meetings and previously inaccessible police services.
Since that first install in November 2020, FSET has helped several other First Nation community partners connect with Starlink. As of May 1, 2022, 1 percent of all Starlink kits in use across the globe are in northwestern Indigenous communities, thanks to the coordination of FSET.
“At this point in time, we’ve connected 2,600 homes and more than 350 businesses across the North, with more coming,” said Nicole. In addition to Ontario, the company is now working with communities in Alberta and Manitoba.
“If you look at Canada, it’s such a massive country,” she said. “And the majority of people live approximately three hours from the U.S. border. But there’s a lot of people living outside of that area, and they need broadband internet too. I am beyond proud for FSET to have moved more kits than any other third-party organization around the world – especially in service of our First Nation community partners.”
FSET sees its work in Northern Canada as helping put the pieces in place for digital equity, which is defined by the First Nations Technology Council as “a state in which every Indigenous person, community and Nation is fully equipped to access and effectively use technology to contribute, thrive and succeed in today’s digital society while preserving self-determination.”
Without digital equity, the Council notes, communities are held back from “innovation, self-governance, entrepreneurship, education, economic and cultural well-being, and nearly all aspects of rights implementation in the digital age.”
As FSET encountered, some of the barriers to digital equity in Canada are physical. “For fiber to be laid in the far North, it’s incredibly expensive, and it takes a really long time,” said Nicole. Even when fiber is laid, she said, it is often done in a way that fails to allow for future expansion of communities and technologies.
But digital inequity is about more than just physical distance. Like the United States, Canada has a long history of disregarding the rights and autonomy of Indigenous people. A lack of usable internet connections is just one manifestation of the country’s ongoing legacy of colonization — a painful history that Canada is just starting to fully acknowledge. The Canadian government has embarked on a multi-year reconciliation process, in partnership with Indigenous people, aiming to “advance the rights, perspectives and prosperity of Indigenous peoples in Canada and around the world.”
Faster internet is one small but crucial step toward digital equity. “When you look at some of these communities, you realize that they’re not playing on the same field as everybody else,” said Nicole.
“You could go into a lot of these communities and realize — you may or may not get cell service, you may not be able to find a working Wi-Fi connection, period. And while this is unjust and difficult on any given day, Covid-19 really amplified the digital divide. It put the inequity that they had experienced for all their life front and center. And that’s when we at FSET said no more.”
Working with remote and underserved communities is nothing new for FSET, whose identity as a Northern IT company is actually baked right into its very name. When Dave first founded the company as a side project in 1999, he named it 468-Tech — the phone number locals could dial to reach him. When the company eventually expanded outside the area code, they alphabetized the three digits and borrowed the ‘t’ from technology to create the name FSET.
“Prior to the request from Pikangikum, Dave and I never had explicit conversations about expanding our company to try and bring internet to the North, which would be a massive undertaking for pretty much anybody,” Nicole said.
“But at the same time, we knew it would be only natural for us to step up to the plate and do what we could to make the situation better. Both he and I, we believe in making a difference, and we try to lead in a way so that mentality can trickle down to everyone else who works at the company. And I think what we’ve done with Starlink shows that, because everyone was on board and to this day it remains an FSET passion project.”
“We have this mission to change the world through technology, in whatever form that may take,” said Brown. “AT FSET, we believe in innovation empowering people, and when it comes to digital equity, that’s exactly what Starlink means for our community partners.”