The Southeast Alaska Regional Tribal Government will pilot its new broadband Internet program in Wrangell, which it says will eventually be available to everyone on the island.
Last year, the Federal Communications Commission opened a special program to allow rural tribes to obtain broadband licenses to improve connectivity. Hundreds of tribes applied, over a third of them in Alaska.
The Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska announced on December 17 that it had obtained its license. In a nutshell, the FCC has granted the regional tribe exclusive use of mid-band broadband spectrum in a number of communities in the southeast.
Chris Cropley, one of Tlingit & Haida’s network architects, says the license is for 2.5 gigahertz spectrum: the same technology used by LTE cell phone networks.
“We’re starting in Wrangell,” says Cropley, because “that’s perfect – it’s the Goldilocks, as they say. He has it all. We have a lot of people there, relatively we have the 2.5 [GHz spectrum] there, and we have the funding for that.
The tribe calls its broadband service Tidal Network. It will be just the Internet at home: not a mobile data service. But all the same, it will have to build its own towers, so that wireless internet can be broadcast directly to homes and businesses that do not already have reliable internet access.
“Wherever it’s already served, we’re not interested in serving,” says Cropley. “So if you have a cable modem in your house, fiber optic to your house, if you have good service at your house, or if you are downtown. We’re not really that interested in replacing that with something else. We’re not looking to replace GCI or ACS or AT&T or whoever.
Wrangell is ideal because there are people with spotty service, Cropley says. But it’s not such a remote community that the Tlingit and Haida would have a hard time bringing people and supplies to town. He says residents living towards the southern end of the 14-mile stretch of the Zimovia Expressway would be good candidates for Tidal Network.
Cropley says that when the FCC opened broadband license applications to rural tribes, the Tlingit and Haida worked with other tribes to apply in areas that were not already applied for by local tribal entities. That way they wouldn’t overlap.
Once the service is in place, the Tlingit & Haida will be required to ‘defend’ it – meaning they must provide Internet service to 80% of the region’s population within the first two years of holding the service. license, and full coverage after five years. . But that doesn’t mean people have to accept the new supplier’s offer.
Tlingit & Haida began working to reclaim their license in 2019. And the federal pandemic assistance it has since received will help fund the project that Cropley says will start out small and portable.
“We buy two what we call COWs – cells on wheels,” Cropley explains, “and they’re towers on a trailer with a generator and a little cabinet underneath, and they expand. We are able to stand them up, and they have radio microwaves on them and they accept fiber optic and we can wire them or wireless them and start providing service on those towers.
Permanent towers can cost more than half a million dollars each ($ 500,000 to $ 600,000 per turn) and come with miles of paperwork.
Cropley says the pieces are already in place to start now, however. He says he has a multi-million dollar budget for Wrangell for the broadband pilot, but refuses to say precisely how much.
Once the details are sorted out, Tidal Network will work in Wrangell as a subscription service with different plans just like any other ISP. Cropley says the goal is to provide the best possible internet at the lowest possible price.
“I don’t want to be like, ‘Well, we’re going to come in and blow everyone’s internet.’ We’re just looking to find the most people with the least or no Internet, ideally, and get them Internet where they didn’t have it before, where they had to use satellite, ”says Cropley.
Wrangell’s pilot project is just that: a test. This will help flesh out the program – from the technology itself, to working with other vendors, to policies and training for Tidal Network employees.
The process will take time and investment on the part of Tlingit & Haida, explains Cropley: “There’s a reason someone isn’t doing it already, right? There is no gold mine at the end of the road here. It is a service.
And, Cropley says, providing the Internet is really only half the battle. Digital literacy education will be an integral part of the program.
“So we’re bringing the Internet to people, big business. The internet is only half the battle, it’s about teaching people how to use it, making sure they’re using it correctly, ”says Cropley. “We will provide home routers that optimize and prioritize WiFi. So that we can make homework easier, home schooling, we don’t just drop the Internet on your roof and say “Good luck”.
With the cooperation of the local government in Wrangell and the tribal government (the Wrangell Cooperative Association), Cropley says that Tlingit & Haida hopes the network will be up and running by the spring of 2022. And after piloting the program in Wrangell, Cropley says that ‘They hope to expand to more than 20 other communities in Southeast Alaska in the coming years.
Contact KSTK at [email protected] or (907) 874-2345.