Recent report on history and status of broadband in tribal areas (including Fond du Lac in MN)

The Institute for Local Self Reliance recently released a report by H. Trostle on the history and status of broadband in tribal areas: Building Indigenous Future Zones: Four Tribal Broadband Case Studies. They look at four networks built in tribal areas including:

  • Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s Red Spectrum Communications in Idaho
  • Nez Perce Tribe Department of Technology Services (wireless and fiber) in Idaho
  • Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe’s Aaniin Fiber Services in Minnesota
  • St. Regis Mohawk Tribe’s Mohawk Network in New York

They found five key lessons:

  1. Improve Access to Capital
  2. Avoid Single-Purpose Funding
  3. Recognize the Preparation Needed to Take Advantage of Opportunities
  4. Tribal Employment Rights Offices Are a Value-Add
  5. Respect Native Nations’ Right to Spectrum

Here’s the portion on Minnesota’s Fond du Lac project, including partnership prjects with the Blandin Foundation…

Aaniin was built through years of careful research and feasibility studies. Jason Hollinday, the Director of Planning at Fond du Lac Planning Division, explained how the Fond du Lac Band approached the problem of getting high-speed Internet service throughout their communities.

In 2006, they started to compare wireless and hardwired network types, such as cable and fiber. The original plan called for ten wireless towers throughout the reservation to deliver Internet service to people’s homes. There were a number of issues with this plan, however, one of which was geography. Northern Minnesota has many hills and forests, and the wireless technology at the time was not going to be able to penetrate to many remote areas. It was, however, fairly inexpensive, and Fond du Lac moved forward with seeking grants for the project. They weren’t funded and Hollinday says they were told that the project was “economically infeasible.”

Undaunted, they changed tactics and considered alternatives, allowing them to be prepared when the market changed drastically in 2010. The price of fiber and equipment for a Fiberto-the-Home network fell enough to make a network feasible on paper. They worked with the Blandin Foundation in Minnesota and pursued grants through the USDA.

Community members, however, needed Internet service faster than the fiber network was likely to be built. The Fond du Lac Band already had an institutional network between government buildings. They added 13 wireless hotspots to several of these buildings in 2013. The hotspots have a range of about ¼ mile, and still serve as a stop-gap measure for community members without reliable Internet service at home.

In 2015, they were finally awarded a USDA Community Connect Grant. Two Minnesota Border to Border Broadband Grants were later approved as well and one Housing & Urban Development (HUD) Indian Community Development Block Grant. In total, it was about $9 million in grants, and the Fond du Lac Band matched half that amount with $4.5 million in cash on hand. They had secured all the funding needed to build out a next-generation network.

Starting out, some of the grants required them to build to areas without Internet service of at least 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1 Mbps upload. Unserved areas were prioritized. Later grants supported building the network to areas without 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. This enabled the Fond du Lac band to reach the rest of the reservation. The Blandin Foundation had assisted with community outreach about the project. In a series of public meetings, community members talked about what they would like to do with the Internet service. Hollinday described a little bit of doubt from some members, such as “Well we’d never get that here, but if we did have it…,” because the project sometimes seemed too good to be true.

The network went live in Fall 2019. The network, however, continues to expand across the reservation, connecting more people. People are still learning all the capabilities of the Internet service. Since 2014, Fond du Lac has offered a summer camp for teens to create smartphone and iPad apps. Each student creates an app and is given an iPad to take home. The program also supports cultural knowledge. For instance, some of the apps from 2014 went into detail about beading, plants, and the Ojibwe language.15 The possibility of expanding outside of the reservation boundaries has been considered, but the focus right now is on making sure all community members have access to a reliable connection. Using gaming money and possibly further grants to build a fiber network in nearby areas could create a long-term diversified revenue stream for the community.

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