SEATTLE - There is a common half-serious joke making its way around Indian country that says American Indians invented wireless technology with smoke signals. Though smoke signals were more common on the clear and open plains than the rainy and varied landscape of the Pacific Northwest, modern technology has found a way to compensate.
A partnership between tribal organizations and business is bringing broadband Internet service to rural Washington state tribes. Around the middle of February, 20 families on the Sauk-Suiattle reservation, located about 80 miles through difficult terrain northeast of Seattle, will receive high-powered computers as the first step toward having a broadband Internet service.
A broadband service is a wireless Internet connection that emanates from a transmitting source like radio or television. The tribe will also have the ability to be an Internet Service Provider to not just tribal members but others in the surrounding rural community.
The project is a joint plan by Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians Economic Development Corporation (ATNI-EDC) and Verizon Avenue, formerly a small time local carrier or "ma bell" that was bought by the larger cell phone company. ATNI-EDC is a non-profit organization representing 54 Pacific Northwest tribes.
"We hope this project will act as a model for other major telecom corporations, who have overlooked bringing new technology and expanded service to rural areas," said ATNI-EDC President Dave Tovey in a press release.
Also contributing to the plan were separate foundations set up by Microsoft pioneers Bill Gates and Paul Allen, who contributed grant funding for the feasibility studies on Washington state reservations.
Sometimes compared to the 1930s Rural Electrification Act, this project stems from a provision in the 1996 Telecommunications Act that asked that federal subsidies to be given to telecommunications companies that would provide services to rural areas. This has proven to be especially valuable for tribes as most are located in rural areas.
The Sauk-Suiattle tribe is the first of several tribes that is due for a telecommunications make over. Already plans are under way to provide similar broadband service for the Lummi, Makah and Lower Elwah tribes in addition to several others.
Over the next few years, all 29 of Washington state's tribes are supposed to at least have broadband projects on the drawing board.
Elstun Lauesen, ATNI-EDC technology director, said both his organization and Verizon Avenue are following a strict protocol. Tribal councils of the prospective tribes are consulted before the plan is laid out and both the tribal government and tribal members are being consulted before both allowing the project to proceed and designing a network that works best for both individual tribal members and the tribal government.
"This is a locally-driven project," said Lawrence Spotted Bird who runs a tribal technology consulting firm that is working on the project. "We don't come in with an established vision."
Spotted Bird noted how quickly the Sauk-Suiattle project came together. It was only last November that the feasibility study was done and the project has a tentative Feb. 10 start date.
Sources close to the project say that Verizon Avenue became involved in the project largely because 90 percent of the metropolitan market is already sewn up by the telecommunications giant. Verizon Avenue apparently still has retained its old "ma bell" staff who are described by one source as "a lot of younger people who wanted to capitalize on the open rural markets."
Verizon Avenue realized that the rural market was the best way to expand business and the 1996 Act helped put the federal funding in place to make this a reality. Opening service on the reservations allows the company a foothold in rural areas of Washington state and reservations will serve as de facto field posts for Verizon Avenue as Internet Service Providers.
The subsidies allow Verizon Avenue to provide a lower cost installation and thus lower costs on the tribal members who are expected to pay only $10 to $12 a month for Internet service. Unlike analog telephone service the broadband, coupled with a high-speed digital connection does not price its service according to time.
Since the tribes will also have the option of being their own Internet Service Provider with the ability to sell low cost service this adds an additional form of revenue for the project.
Though, as in the case of the Sauk-Suiattle reservation, it will be necessary in many instances to install additional land-based lines to service the area which can cost in the tens of thousands of dollars, Verizon Avenue is expected to recoup their costs within three to five years.
A similar, though unrelated project was done a few years ago on the Suquamish reservation close to Seattle. Bob Gemmell, a Suquamish tribal member who worked on that project said it was easier for them to do their project because of the nearness of an existing fiber cable.
Suquamish, located immediately across the Puget Sound from Seattle, benefited from its proximity to that city and thus eliminated the difficulty of having to install a new line, a luxury many of the state's more remote tribes do not have.
In fact, ATNI-EDC Technology Director Lauesen said that many of the tribes in Washington state are reliant on antiquated phone lines.
"Some of those phone lines have become so degraded that (only a low speed connection) could be made. Now the tribes will have the fastest and most modern connections."