Native nations are building community networks, owned and operated by tribal governments to ensure that Indian Country has high-speed Internet access. In July 2017, the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe announced a plan to build a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network to 900 homes that only had access to dial-up Internet service.
The Duluth News Tribune reported that the Fond du Lac tribal government is putting more than $2 million towards the venture and has secured about $6 million in federal grants. We spoke with Jason Hollinday, the Planning Director, to get more details on Fond du Lac Communications and what it means for the community.
Fond du Lac Connectivity
The Fond du Lac reservation, “Nagaajiwanaang,” covers about 150 square miles in northeastern Minnesota, and the FTTH project will encompass most of the area - about 120 square miles. The network will offer voice, video, and Internet service.
Anyone, including non-tribal members, will be able to get connected within the service area. Prices have yet to be determined, offering affordable rates is a priority. In a recent Pine Journal article, Band IT director Fred Underwood pointed out that "Connectivity is available anywhere, but is it affordable?" and added that affordability in rural areas is often hard to find. Connectivity for the FTTH network will include a program to connect low-income residents and installation fees have been waived for any subscriber who signed up before July 31st.
Community centers and public buildings will all be connected and receive two years of free Internet service. The goal is to make sure that the network will be a community asset benefiting everyone.
Hollinday mentioned how excited people are to have high-speed Internet service at home for the first time. Several have already expressed their anticipation at being able to enjoy Netflix and take online college courses. As the project got underway, the community celebrated with a groundbreaking at the Sawyer Community Center.
Making The Project A Reality
This project has been almost 10 years in the making. Hollinday described how the planning department had been laying the groundwork for this project for nearly a decade from looking for grants to preparing a request for proposals (RFP).
The plan finally came together when they received two Community Connect grants - each worth $3 million - from the federal government’s Department of Agriculture (USDA). These were the only two grants awarded to a Minnesota community through this program.
The network will be mostly buried underground, which is often more expensive than putting the fiber on utility poles. The tribal government has pulled together another $2.2 million to put toward the project, and they also intend to apply for a Minnesota Border-to-Border grant to help with the cost of building the network. Officials estimate the project will cost a total of approximately $8.2 million.
They plan on commencing service to the reservation with a pilot area as early as next spring to work out any issues before offering it to the wider service area.
[Secretary/treasurer Ferdinand] Martineau said. "It is very important for our community to have that access and I think it's a great project. It not only benefits the Fond du Lac Band but will benefit everyone in the project area."