By Naomi Graychase
Last month, in a special ceremony attended by HUD (Housing and Urban Development) officials, state senators and other local elected officials, members of the Coeur d’Alene tribe in Idaho celebrated the grand opening of the tribe’s new community technology center (CTC). The CTC, which makes broadband access and 40 computers available to members of the tribe for free, is the first phase of a multifaceted plan to bring broadband wireless to every corner of the reservation. Before doors opened at the CTC in mid-July, there was no broadband available anywhere on the reservation.
Valerie Fast Horse, IT Director for the tribe, calls the arrival of broadband on the reservation “revolutionary.”
“I always compare [the days of dial-up] to the day before we got the horse,” she says. “The day before our people got the horse, we were using canoes. We were on foot. Our areas of berry-picking, hunting, gathering, commerce were limited to the places we were willing to walk or canoe to. Broadband increases the areas of commerce, socializing, conducting business. It’s revolutionary. It’ll change the way people live.”
Fast Horse was instrumental in writing the $2.8 million USDA Rural Utilities Service grant for the project, which got the broadband ball rolling on the reservation. The total cost of the project is projected to be $3.5 million. The tribe, which operates a casino and other businesses, contributed the difference between the grant and the total cost.
“I’ve been working on ‘digital divide’ issues since 1999,” says Fast Horse, who also belongs to two large Indian organizations—ATNI (Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians) and NCAI (National Congress of American Indians). The ATNI, which consists of 55 tribes, was formed in the 1950s and helped to successfully resist attempts by Congress to terminate federal and trust responsibilities toward tribes. The NCAI counts more than 500 tribes as members in the United States. Both groups have been formulating strategies for bridging the digital divide and getting high-speed Internet access into rural Indian communities.
“We see not one but four divides,” explains Fast Horse. “Transport, distribution, access, and content. In order to bridge the divide for our own people, we need to take a look at those things. Most reservations are remote, so how do we get our feed in? I was looking at ways of solving our problems. Transport was very expensive. Nothing existed.”
That is, until the convergence of Wi-Fi technology and the opportunity to pursue the grant in 2002. The Rural Utilities Service received hundreds of applications for the $20 million in grant money, the competition for which was open to all rural American communities (not just reservations)—the only stipulation being that the communities had to have had no prior access to broadband. In May of 2003, Fast Horse received notice that her tribe’s proposal had won the funding she sought. And in February of 2004, the funding was finally released, allowing the tribe to move forward with plans to build the CTC and deploy its extensive wireless network.
Spokane, Wash.-based Vivato was chosen to build the network, which will provide access to all 345,000 acres of the Coeur d’Alene Reservation. The reservation includes valleys, Palouse farm country, and the western edge of the Rocky Mountains. Vivato was chosen, in large part, because of its ability to deal with the challenges of the terrain.
“There’s a void here in these tribal communities,” says Vivato senior vice president of marketing Ben DiLello. “Because they are in fairly remote areas, they are not able to have any communications. Cable companies don’t focus on the markets because they’re not financially viable and it’s a huge amount of square mileage.”
Sixteen extended-range Vivato Wi-Fi base stations will be installed at four strategically selected locations. Vivato’s system uses phased array antennae and a patented PacketSteering technology to boost coverage to up to 13 miles.
“The mountains and valleys are a challenge and an opportunity,” says DiLello. “These panels have to be strategically located at places with some height, and pointed toward the POP you are trying to cover. If it’s a situation where the terrain is such that we have to go through mountain ranges, we do it by placing multiple panels, which we have done here. Actually, this deployment plays to our strength because of the power we have to communicate over a pretty broad area.”
Among the uses Fast Horse foresees for tribal-wide Wi-Fi broadband are streaming video and other high-bandwidth applications, especially those which help to teach the ancient tribal language of the Coeur d’Alene.
“Our idea is to put the relevant content on a server and dish it out to the people who want it,” Fast Horse says.
Wi-Fi will be available to the 6,000 households on the reservation for a monthly fee, which Fast Horse says is comparable to what one would pay for the same service in an urban area. It will be available for free at the CTC. The tribe expects to complete deployment of the entire network by the end of summer.