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Feb 9, 2021

$1 billion toward better tribal broadband is just a down payment

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The CARES Act created a $1 billion fund to help tribes build their own networks, but it may cost seven times that.

We’ve been talking this week about the digital divide in Indian Country. Reservations lag way behind the rest of the country in terms of access to high-speed internet. However, the CARES Act created a $1 billion fund to help tribes build their own networks.

I spoke with Matthew Rantanen, director of technology at the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association, which runs a wireless network that provides service to 19 tribes near San Diego. He also advocates for policy that will help tribes and said that money is just a baseline. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Matthew Rantanen (Photo courtesy of Paul Miranda)

Matthew Rantanen: $7.2 [billion] is a pretty decent look at the opportunities, the number of households, fiber to the premises based on mileage and stuff, connecting to that middle mile. And making sure that the tribe has access to enough bandwidth to be able to pull this off. You know, $1 billion is a good foundational start. But there’s more to be done.

Molly Wood: Just out of curiosity, where does that $7.2 billion estimate come from?

Rantanen: That’s been worked up between a couple of industry experts, myself included, and some folks from the [Federal Communications Commission]. It’s been vetted through some of the advocacy groups that I work around. It’s desktop engineering at best, but it is within the ballpark of the chaos that we need to solve.

Wood: Do you feel like this is a priority of the incoming administration? There’s a new FCC coming in. There is, it appears, much more recognition of the importance of the digital divide. Are you hopeful that some of this funding, or at least some policies or some spectrum, could be forthcoming?

Rantanen: Yeah, I do think that this is going to be a new focus. I think it’s probably one of the few issues that’s bipartisan. We got some traction out of the last administration through the FCC. Obviously, we’re talking about it now. But we stand to see a lot more moving forward and a lot more opportunities. And I think some of the barriers can be reduced in this next administration that may have been obstacles in the past. I mean, what better marketing campaign than COVID-19 to tell you how important it is to have broadband at your home?

Wood: The $1 billion, you say, is a good start, but it wouldn’t exist without COVID-19. I mean, it’s a bit of a silver lining for some tribes in some ways, right?

Rantanen: Yeah, don’t let a good emergency go to waste. I mean, this is true. I can’t even think how far back we’ve been saying $1 billion as a foundational start to this. It’s at least six years, if not more. And obviously, there needs to be an understanding of what, after the $1 billion, is actually needed. And because of the $1 billion, and because of some of the other matching efforts that are happening at the state level to do assessments and evaluations, we’re going to have a much better understanding of what is actually or truly needed in each of these locations. And it will be able to quantify: Is it another $6 billion, or have we come far enough now that maybe it’s only $5 billion? To be determined, but I think this is a step that will really get some better understanding as to what is actually happening on the ground.

Wood: And then, just broadly speaking, give us a sense of how big this gap really is. How does this lack of internet access affect reservations specifically and people’s willingness and ability to stay in their communities?

Rantanen: So interestingly enough, 20 years ago, we had a lot of opposition from tribal leadership about connecting their kids to the internet. There’s all these harmful things on the internet. The parents don’t understand it well enough to be able to police it. And that shift happened as internet started to come into the community and kids started using it and education started to embrace it more and more. Now, we have those same cultural leaders from 20 years ago coming to me and saying, “Can you please deploy bigger, faster, better internet to our community with more capacity? Because our children have gone off to higher education and gotten a degree, and they can’t come home because we don’t have access to the internet. They can’t perform their degree, they can’t perform the jobs that their degree allows them to get.”

Related audio: More on this conversation

The spectrum grants were a pretty big deal. They come after the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report in 2018 saying that the FCC had “done little to promote and support tribes’ access to radio frequency spectrum that can be used for such wireless service.” Spectrum is a complicated topic, but basically, the FCC gave tribes the opportunity starting last February and ending around the end of last summer to apply for no-cost licenses to spectrum that wasn’t being used and said it would auction off whatever wasn’t claimed in this grant process.

Rantanen said the ideal solution for a lot of tribes is a hybrid of fiber, which is expensive and tough to deploy in remote areas or mountainous country, and wireless, which is where the spectrum comes in. So here’s the rest of our conversation about that.

Wood: Tell us a little bit about the history of the spectrum licenses because for a while there was really a lot of pressure on the FCC to make that spectrum available on tribal lands, right?

Rantanen: Yeah, we’ve been pushing as hard as we can. I’ve been doing that specifically for 20 years. You had Geoffrey Blackwell on your last [episode], who is a friend and a colleague in the space of advocacy, and we’ve been fighting to try to unlock spectrum for tribes together for about 15 years. And the unfortunate aspect is that the amount of available wireless spectrum that’s of general use to the public isn’t enough to cover an area with a somewhat dense population for tribal standards. And so when we get access to an actual license itself, so we’re actually licensed to use that spectrum, that’s much more valuable because there’s less interference involved, there’s a wider amount of usage of channel and spectrum allocation. There’s always a need for more. I know for one of the network towers that we have here, we are our own worst enemy. If we want to hang anything new on that tower, we actually have to pull something down because there is no more available spectrum for us to use in the public space, or the lightly licensed space, as that one would be.

Wood: What should come next? Should there be a bigger allotment of spectrum licenses just as a baseline?

Rantanen: There’s a pretty substantial argument from the tribal perspective that unused spectrum or unallocated spectrum over tribal lands should by default be assigned to the tribe. Yes, they could opt out of this, or if the FCC typically does opt in, that would give the tribe the tools it needs to be able to serve its communities and build networks that are robust and can solve the problems at hand. Wireless is a great technology, especially for crazy geography and mountainous terrain and different things like this because it’s hard to run fiber up the side of a mountain, especially if you dig it underground. However, the restrictions of wireless is that it scales to a certain level, but it doesn’t scale like fiber. The capacity doesn’t scale like fiber until we get better compression technologies to be able to push more data over that wireless signal. It isn’t the be-all, end-all.

Wood: So spectrum and wireless infrastructure is a start. But it sounds like you’re saying there also has to be a much more robust broadband infrastructure to make it all work?

Rantanen: Yeah. Everybody’s pushing for some aspect of a hybrid network that includes fiber. Fiber backhaul is mandatory to be able to connect to the rest of the world with the amount of people you’re going to be using the network at the same time, sending data. It’ll be required. But whether or not you can run fiber to the home or fiber to every building on your reservation is specific to each situation. Every reservation is different, no one size fits all. But the more you can run fiber to the distribution points and have a bigger pipe, if you will, that serves those distribution points, the more effective your wireless off the end of that pipe to those endpoints is.

Wood: I mean, it seems to me that in many ways, what we’re talking about is very similar to the conversations about municipal broadband and the ability of municipalities to build their own networks, except scaled to the level of tribes, which obviously have sovereignty, multiple levels of wealth and huge geographic issues in some cases. I’m thinking of Alaska tribes, where it’s just like, “Look, it’s going to come from space or nowhere else.” And it sounds like it’s very hard to come up with anything even remotely resembling a one-size-fits-all solution.

Rantanen: That’s right. Just the population size change, geography, and as you mentioned, just sheer lack of resources like Alaska, you’re creating a new solution for every single situation. However, they do very much resemble municipal networks. Essentially, they’re being run by the tribal government in most cases, or a department of the tribal government. And a lot of times, it’ll take care of your government responsibilities, your municipalities and your functions, but it’ll do economic development. And then, it’ll move into connectivity for the tribal home and education as well. It’s a one-stop-shop network because of the size of the community. So it’s sort of a blurred line on the definition of what that network actually is.

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