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Quinault tribal member Tyson Johnston doesn’t just want a seat at the table for his tribe — he wants a hand in building it.

That’s the goal behind Toptana Technologies, a new tribal enterprise based in Tahola, Washington, spun out beneath the Quinault Indian Nation. The company’s chief project is a cable landing station serving as a nexus for subsea cabling used to bring rural communities online.

The Tribe plans to bridge the nearby Interstate 5 corridor with a new fiber optic network that will offer super-fast connections between the region’s coastal communities and potential Asia-Pacific and Oceanic partners.

The cable landing station — and the new fiber network it will support — will give the Quinault sovereignty over their own internet capabilities, while providing support for both tribal and non-tribal residents in getting online in an increasingly connected world, Johnston said.

Johnston spoke with Tribal Business News to discuss the particulars of the project, what’s ahead for the landing station and network, and what kind of impact the Tribe hopes to make with its investments and development. 

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How did Toptana happen? What inspired the Tribe to build out a cable landing station and a company to manage it?

This initiative was really born out of the Tribes’ evolution itself. We've been struggling with the digital divide at the Quinault Tribe, just like most of Indian Country is. At the time I was the nation's vice president after serving on council for 10 years. When we hit the pandemic a few years ago, it just kind of emphasized the need for greater technology infrastructure - we weren't able to provide proper health care instances with our elders with chronic health conditions, our children had to go almost overnight to this fully virtual education option.

Were you prepared for that transition?

That was a hard scenario because we couldn't support them. Luckily, before the pandemic really hit hard, we had already been making big investments in our infrastructure, like building out fiber that was on or near the reservation. In places where there's not really any on the reservation, but that backbone stops just short of the reservation, we invested several millions of dollars to connect our population center to some of the fiber networks that are available in our area.

But that still wasn’t ideal for people outside of those areas, it sounds like.

We started building out these options so we could do basic things like have meetings like this on a Zoom, or make sure our kids could, you know, log into their school and do their assignments and modules. We’ve also been able to offer a microwave option that gives better speed, but still far below the FCC standards.

So how did a cable landing station emerge as the solution?

The Port of Grays Harbor was originally doing a feasibility study to pursue a subsea cable station on one of their properties, but the project couldn’t move forward. We saw this as a potential opportunity as a coastal nation just south of the marine sanctuary, and were thankful to get ntroduced to some of the work that they had already done.

The Tribe could maybe go where other organizations or communities could not?

We’re well-versed in environmental and regulatory laws, and we’re one of four tribes in the country that self-regulate our activities in the ocean – so we had a different opportunity here on our end, and that was really exciting for us because it was a chance for the Tribe to be in the driver’s seat as an owner and operator for this key infrastructure.

We found out through due diligence that there hadn't been any new landings in Washington in over 20 years. We're one of the most southern tribes in the state, so we're out of that marine sanctuary partially, so we just happen to have this great location where that could materialize.

So you had this idea for building infrastructure – what did the final plan look like?

This project has really broken out into four elements. There's a front-haul marine cable connection point that's about three-quarters of a mile out in the ocean that the subsea customers would connect into. Then there's the cable landing station. From the cable landing station, we're developing a backhaul network. It's about 79 miles from Ocean Shores, Washington out to our exit point to the Interstate 5 corridor in Centralia, Washington, and then there's a north-south backhaul terrestrial route that's buried that connects us from our Centralia exit point up to Seattle, Washington, and south down to Hillsboro, Oregon.

How far along is the plan?

The Tribe has secured that north-south backhaul route that gets us to those key data center campuses, and that’s being constructed. Right now, we're in negotiations to finalize the route on the east-west for the 79-mile development, and we've secured a construction firm that's nearing completion of our construction documents for our cable landing station.

Are you open to seeking out new funding to support the project through federal grants?

We love federal partners, and we love those opportunities that have become available in these last few years. But the work that we’ve been doing predated a lot of that newer funding. There was no (Notice of Federal Funding Opportunity) yet, you know, we had already been moving down the road on this through our own strategy and funding structure through the Tribes’ resources.

Those other programs became available after the fact,  so that’s something we're looking at. It’s just another way this opportunity kind of lined up well – we’ve been working on this as the federal government has made resources available for connectivity and broadband. We’re looking at some of those, we'll have some applications pending for opportunities that make sense for this project.

Does your solution land in the same framework as, say, building out middle-mile backhaul?

I don't think cable landing stations, or the subsea part of broadband was even on the radar of some of these programs. I think our exploration into this maybe helped their rulemaking include subsea as an eligible activity in some of their programs. But for some of them, I don't think it was included. So that's also another issue.

What kind of impact do you hope to have with this project?

It's a transformative project even outside of the connectivity. This infrastructure operationalizes so many things, making sure we can provide proper educational services to the youth of our region, offering new health care opportunities for our elders and for our folks that suffer from chronic conditions.

We just opened a big wellness center in our county to service folks — both tribal and nontribal — to get help and assist with treatment for dependency issues and so on. Having this infrastructure as a backdrop to support these many different initiatives and efforts really brings up a lot more opportunity and leverage for success in the long run.

You mentioned wanting to ‘build the table,’ instead of just showing up to a seat. What kind of sovereignty impact will Toptana have?

I think it's just so key to make sure that our folks are in the pipeline to learn about, not only learn about the industry, but also be prepared and educated to prop up it and operate it. So, I think, from a sovereignty aspect, (it’s about) getting our kids into the STEAM and STEM career paths, and, you know, supporting the tribe’s overall goal of this kind of broadband sovereignty. I think that’s also really important and is a cornerstone of what top Toptana wants to operationalize for the Quinault Indian Nation.

There's also a lot of scientific and safety utility that's associated with it. We've been looking at adapting smart-cable technology, so we could have better sensors when it comes to tsunami preparedness.

How so?

Right now, if a tsunami event were to happen on our coast, our children and folks of the lower part of our village … would only have two minutes to escape from a tsunami event, which we projected would inundate our whole lower village. This smart technology would sense seismic activity on the ocean floor, and we'd go from having two minutes of warning to an hour or more of warning. Just having that — from a safety standpoint — is life changing.

About The Author
Chez Oxendine
Staff Writer
Chez Oxendine (Lumbee-Cheraw) is a staff writer for Tribal Business News. Based in Oklahoma, he focuses on broadband, Indigenous entrepreneurs, and federal policy. His journalism has been featured in Native News Online, Fort Gibson Times, Muskogee Phoenix, Baconian Magazine, and Oklahoma Magazine, among others.
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