For the past several decades, the prevailing model for Native American tribes' economic development has centered on the hospitality industry: taking advantage of laws that allow them to build casinos, many tribes have entered the gaming and resort business, improving economic conditions not only for their own people, but also for surrounding areas.
Some native nations, however, are pioneering a new route of development that, like gaming, can strengthen the economies of the tribes themselves, as well as surrounding non-indigenous communities. That new model is the construction of broadband networks.
"It's time that tribes are able to have the resources to further develop our economies beyond gaming," said Allyson Doctor, interim CEO of Mohawk Networks and North Country Broadband, networks operated by the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, located in northern New York State.
The St. Regis network may be the most ambitious tribally owned broadband effort in the U.S. In addition to constructing a fiber-to-the-home network for residents of its own territory (Akwesasne, which straddles the U.S. and Canadian borders), the tribe, through North Country Broadband, a subsidiary of the tribally owned network, has also launched two networks outside its sovereign territory in upstate New York. It now offers fiber broadband to the city of Massena, NY, about 12 miles from Akwesasne, and is in the midst of building a fixed wireless network for 3,600 homes and businesses in Lewis County, about 100 miles from Akwesasne.
Lewis County Manager Ryan Piche said he is proud to be in the vanguard of areas slated to receive ubiquitous broadband through the combination of public and private investments and pioneering work by the Mohawks.
"We view it as one of the most important—if not the most important—initiatives we have going on right now," Piche said of the buildout, which is expected to reach 97% of the 1,200-sq.-mile county, which has a population of just 27,000.
Doctor and Brenna Susice, the network's project manager, said the Lewis County project, which will rely on a combination of county-owned 911 radio towers and 61 repeater towers built on private land leased by the network, is a manifestation of the tribe's commitment to bringing broadband capabilities to the rural Adirondacks beyond the tribe's territory.
"Through North Country Broadband, our mission is to meet the needs of the unserved residences in the North Country," Doctor said. "Lewis County has 3,600 homes unserved, in a very rural area, and those larger companies have not made the investment in these rural areas. It's important for healthcare, for education, and public safety, and building that critical infrastructure is the core of why we are doing what we are doing."
The Lewis County build-out is the beneficiary of a $6.4-million grant, covering some 80% of the project's $8-million cost, from the state's New NY Broadband program. Pricing, which starts at $41.95 per month for 10 megabits per second downstream, is largely a function of the contractual language of the grant.
One experienced telecommunications executive sees so much potential in tribally owned broadband networks that he started a dedicated consultancy to cater to that market. Andrew Metcalfe is the CEO of Wenatchee, WA-based Native Network, which he founded in 2016 after several tribes began asking his advice on an ad hoc basis as they undertook network construction. Today, Metcalfe said, Native Network has 11 tribal customers under contract and more in the pipeline.
"I had an epiphany that there was a huge market that was not being taken advantage of—the tribes becoming telecom companies, if you will—and connecting those together," said Metcalfe, whose experience as a cellular network builder and owner goes back to the early 1990s. "That's my vision, that all tribes would be connected together on a high-speed fiber optic network across the country. I started looking into it, and the majority of tribes aren't set up to be able to take advantage of that. They don't have fiber. A lot don't even have broadband."
Metcalfe said some pioneering tribes, such as the Tulalips of western Washington (one of his early clients), operate networks in metropolitan areas, competing head-to-head with incumbent providers.
"But when you get out into the rural markets, it makes even more sense," he said. "They need it for their own governments, their own enterprises, and their own people, who have traditionally been underserved. But because we have helped them to do that and have it in place, they can reach out to the surrounding communities, which have also been underserved for the most cases. It's starting to resonate with the tribes we've been speaking to, but right now they are interested in solidifying their own requirements."
One of those works-in-progress is the Tribal Digital Village network, run by the Southern California Tribal Chairmen's Association, which offers fixed wireless broadband in territorial lands in San Diego County. Matt Rantanen, the association's technology director, said the network, which currently serves approximately 400 of the county's 2,700 tribal homes on territorial land, needs to overcome remote locations that preclude even being hooked up to the power grid—20 of the network's 23 towers are off-grid and solar-powered.
"We are trying, from the data center out, to build commercial-grade quality of service and we are doing that reservation by reservation," Rantanen said. "As we are doing that, we are picking up more customers where we know we have a tower that won't go down because of weather. Reliability is probably 99% right now and we are trying to get to a minimum of four nines (99.99%)."
Though the non-tribal customer base of the network is still miniscule and the emphasis is on connecting tribal members, Rantanen said if tribes are able to provide reliable broadband for themselves, "and you serve the surrounding community, you'll solve a lot of rural America's problems, for sure."
Piche said he and his colleagues in Lewis County government are delighted with the relationship they have developed with Mohawk Networks.
"We work hand-in-hand with them," he said. "We do weekly teleconferences with our management team and theirs. We have put them in front of all the town supervisors and zoning boards to make sure they understand what's required, and our local government agencies have helped them find landowners who are interested in helping them by agreeing to lease tower space. The response has been amazing. In the first six weeks, we had more than 20 landowners committed. People here are thirsting for broadband in these rural areas and we are really excited the project is working well so far."
As Mohawk Networks is a publicly owned entity, Susice and Doctor said they believe there is probably an existing "government-to-government" comfort level local municipalities feel when undertaking a partnership with the St. Regis nation. Native Network's Metcalfe also said he thought tribally owned networks may have a slightly easier time getting off the ground, as they have a built-in customer base on territorial lands as well as access to some financing non-tribal networks might not have. Doctor said even the tribe's initial territorial fiber network, which was financed through a $10.5-million grant from the U.S. Agriculture Department, could not have been built with private funds alone, and Piche said he doubts any private operator would have ventured into Lewis County without state funding.
Even when government involvement is not official, some tribal network operators see a benefit of public sector involvement. Rantanen said the California State Department of Technology's willingness to help the association negotiate with the region's long-haul fiber providers (ultimately, the state's intercession was not needed) lowered his wholesale cost by 75% and more, and enabled him to establish redundant fiber connections at either end of his network.
Piche said the Lewis County buildout is on schedule for completion by the end of next year. "We are trying to get up the 12 main 911 towers and the initial repeater towers by the end of 2018 and by the end of 2019 we should have the full 97% coverage of the county," he said.
Meanwhile, Mohawk Networks is continuing to live up to its commitment to its neighbors elsewhere in the North Country by expanding North Country Broadband's footprint. On Jan. 31, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the company was receiving another $10.9 million in state, federal, and private broadband funding to run 26 miles of backbone fiber to provide connection to five fixed wireless towers in Franklin County, to deliver high speed Internet service to 1,286 unserved households.
Gregory Goth is an Oakville, CT-based writer who specializes in science and technology.
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