Following the recent launch of its Tidal Networks business, the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska plan to pilot fixed wireless internet service in the city of Wrangell, located on an island in the southeastern tip of the state.
The tribe has partnered with coreNOC Inc., an Owasso, Okla.-based Native-owned tech company, to develop a 4G wireless solution targeting 100 megabit download and 20 megabit upload speeds for some 10,000 people in the greater Wrangell area.
“We’re in line for some hardware, we have a bunch of gear ordered and we’re hoping that shows up in the next 20 or so weeks,” Chris Cropley, a network architect for the tribe, told Tribal Business News. “That’s what’s driving our timeline right now.”
The rollout will use a fiber connection point in Wrangell to distribute a wireless signal across the “last mile,” reaching residents for whom hard-wired connections aren’t financially or geographically viable.
Cropley said the tribe began investigating the solution after securing 2.5 GHz broadband spectrum during a Federal Communications Commission licensing event in 2020 that gave federally recognized tribes access to the unused spectrum for free. Using that spectrum to reach homes, rather than building a fiber solution, could be fully funded using $15 million from the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska’s American Rescue Plan Act allocation.
“With our current budget, and leveraging the spectrum, we found that leveraging the fixed wireless is the best way to get the most internet to the most people for the least amount of money in the least amount of time,” Cropley said.
CoreNOC CEO and co-founder Johnie Johnson, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, told Tribal Business News that the Wrangell buildout was a trial for developing internet services for other communities in the area.
“We’re looking at the late third quarter to roll this technology out for the trial, and then based on a successful trial, there will be a roll-out to other communities,” Johnson said. “Once (the Tlingit and Haida) feel comfortable with the trial in Wrangell, we will expand.”
Cropley said an eventual expansion of Tidal Network could target as many as 20 communities that face similar “middle mile” challenges. That expansion is pending word on $50 million in funding the tribe requested through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Tribal Broadband Connectivity program.
Notably, the program received more than $5 billion in requests for an initial $980 million in funding, as Tribal Business News previously reported. While the program has received another $2 billion allocation in the 2021’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, NTIA has not yet announced how much would be available in a second funding opportunity, or how much will be added to the initial pot.
“We’re just waiting to hear back on that,” Cropley said. “That program is pretty oversubscribed, though, so we expect there’s going to be a delay before we hear anything.”
Cropley describes Tidal Network as a public-focused effort rather than a competitive, revenue-driven business. While private ISPs create networks primarily to generate profit, Tidal’s chief objective is simply bringing internet access to unserved people.
However, that model led to challenges when Tidal Networks sought out collaborators, Cropley said.
“The tribes are being tasked with building out the networks to provide for the unserved. The providers have shareholders to be responsible for, and their job is to make money. Our job is to provide internet for people,” Cropley said. “It’s a little bit different of a business model or paradigm, so it’s been hard to find partners, vendors and consultants that align with that.”
Cropely added that while he had a background in building networks when Tlingit and Haida hired him to begin the process of creating a service provider, he didn’t have much experience with wireless services.
That’s what eventually drove Cropley and a colleague in April 2021 to visit the Wireless Internet Service Providers of America trade show in Texas, where they met Johnson and heard about coreNOC Inc. The company’s focus on building rural networks pushed the tribe to approach the company.
Johnson called the agreement in which coreNOC designed, sourced and eventually will install the 4G systems in Wrangell as an opportunity for “knowledge transfer.”
“That’s what’s been most attractive, I think. We help tribes and clients understand how to install, how to service and how to monitor the technology,” Johnson said. “We’re able to help them select the technology, to deploy the technology, help them commission, and then bring that to market.
“At the end of the day, we have a full turnkey solution we provide for the tribes.”
As tribes begin in earnest to provide internet service for their citizens, many of them have to grapple with new technologies and the resultant challenges, Johnson said.
“This is a new space for tribes, so a lot of tribes we’ve talked to … they’re struggling to put together a business plan, how to deploy their technology, how to bring it to market,” Johnson said. “That’s where coreNOC comes in.”
Cropley says the arrangement will help create a service that stretches from access point to keyboard, rather than leaving new Tidal Network users high and dry in servicing their own connections.
“We're not just dropping internet at the door and walking away,” Cropley said. “We're providing you with a home router and we can remotely manage it — whatever's necessary to give people that holistic experience.”
Seeing the future
Watching tribes realize the importance of broadband in their communities and begin building solutions has served as a vindication of sorts for Cropley, a Tlingit citizen.
“I’ve been a computer nerd my whole life, and I’ve been evangelizing computers and the internet,” Cropley said. “Now people are getting caught up and sharing with me why it’s important. My aunties and uncles and cousins and nephews are telling me why it’s important.”
Tribes across the United States have embarked on efforts to build new broadband solutions in the wake of a pandemic that made telehealth and distance learning the norm, rather than the exception. A massive federal push, alongside billions in infrastructure funding, has fueled a bevy of projects and new enterprises as tribes work to adapt primarily rural communities for the connected world.
Offering internet means more to Native Americans than simply accessing services that were previously unavailable to them, Cropley said. It’s about providing a new economic and cultural avenue for Natives to use in preserving, sharing and strengthening their culture and communities.
“What happens when I can start bringing the culture and art and language from this village to the rest of the world?” he said. “What happens when I can provide a job that pays two or three times the average income and they can stay in their ancestral lands instead of having to come to the big city?
“It’s a two-way street. This is a good thing for everybody.”