Rural Southeast Alaskan Tribes Leverage Spectrum for a Pilot Connecting Hard-to-Reach Communities

The Tlingit and Haida Tribes will leverage $15 million in Rescue Plan funding to bring LTE-based 100 Mbps symmetrical wireless connectivity to 10,000 unserved residents in and around the city of Wrangell, located on Wrangell Island in southeast Alaska. The Internet Service Provider in charge of the buildout is the newly-launched, tribally-owned ISP Tidal Networks. The project is a pilot the tribes plan to expand to all residents of the island, and eventually to other communities in the region.  

The pilot is made possible by Tlingit and Haida’s successful participation in the FCC’s Rural Tribal Priority Window, which allowed tribes to claim space on the 2.5 gigahertz spectrum band. Back in 2019, Tlingit and Haida partnered with southeast Alaska village tribes to gain access to the spectrum, and worked throughout 2021 to “discuss [Tlingit and Haida’s] broadband initiative and opportunities to partner for the broadband project.” 

Utilizing Spectrum to Make Connectivity Feasible

Alaskan tribes have been particularly active participants of the Rural Tribal Priority Window, which was first announced by the FCC in early December 2019 and closed on September 2, 2020. Over one third of the nearly 400 tribes that applied were located in Alaska. The Yakutat Tlingit Tribe, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, the Hydaburg Cooperative Association, and the Organized Village of Saxman also successfully gained access. To hold the spectrum license, tribes were originally required to provide service to 80 percent of residents no later than two years after obtaining it, and 100 percent of residents within five years. Since then, the FCC has doubled the requirement window to four and eight years, respectively. 

Tlingit and Haida secured spectrum in several communities in the southeastern part of the state, which has allowed the tribes to design a plan for broadband deployment that could be fully covered by the $15 million in Rescue Plan funding the tribe was awarded. A total of $31 billion was disbursed to tribes to pursue infrastructure projects to close gaps exacerbated by the pandemic. Tlingit and Haida recently entered a partnership with Native-owned tech company coreNOC Inc, which will provide consulting services.

As for the infrastructure, a single fiber access point located in Wrangell will back an LTE wireless last-mile network that will connect residents. Tlingit and Haida Council Network Architect Chris Cropley says, “We are buying two what we call COWs – cell on wheels. They are towers on a trailer with a generator and a little cabinet underneath, and they extend out. We’re able to stand them up, and they have radio microwaves on them and they accept fiber optic and we’re able to wire them up or wireless them and begin to provide service on those towers.” The decision to purchase portable towers instead of permanent ones will save the tribes hundreds of thousands of dollars (though this type of infrastructure is less resilient than wireline fiber, and will have to be replaced sooner). The Wrangell pilot project’s total budget is several million dollars, but the exact budget for this pilot is undisclosed.    

Expanding its Footprint  

In June of 2022, the tribes announced a second pilot – a partnership with the ​​Sitka Tribe of Alaska (STA) to connect both tribal and non-tribal Sitka residents lacking broadband service. Tlingit and Haida own the 2.5 GHz around the city of Sitka, but not the spectrum within the city’s bounds – the Sitka tribe owns that. Tlingit and Haida will lease STA’s own spectrum, which STA gained access to through the Rural Tribal Priority Window, and then build the infrastructure necessary to deliver wireless service.“ Neither the Sitka Tribe of Alaska nor the City of Sitka will be tapped to fund any part of the project. STA Deputy General Manager Anne Davis emphasized the value of the arrangement: “This is a great example of how tribal governments – both regional and local – provide benefits to Sitka.” 

The partnership and expansion will also help Tlingit and Haida fulfill the obligations of the spectrum license. The partnership, which allows Tidal to deploy across boundaries, will help connect more of the region’s population. Tidal hopes to establish more partnerships with local tribes and connect additional areas that have either been left behind by private providers or where service is unaffordable. Tlingit and Haida have plans to expand into as many as 20 additional communities, work which would be funded by a pending $50 million Tribal Broadband Connectivity program grant.  

Cropley has also explained that Tidal is invested in ensuring that quality service continues past the installation so customers have a good experience: “We’re going to be providing in-home routers that do WiFi optimization and prioritization. So that we’re able to facilitate working from home, school from home, we’re not just dropping internet off on your roof and saying ‘Good luck.’” Additionally, the network is taking advantage of the Affordable Connectivity Program, which extends a $75/month broadband credit to members of any tribe in the United States. Tidal will also offer a plan for $75/month. The network aims to deliver speeds of 100/20 Mbps

Tribally-owned Tidal Networks will connect residents in southeast Alaska to important services they cannot currently reach, but the network also has important cultural and economic development implications for the tribes and the area. Cropley said, “What happens when I can start bringing the culture and art and language from this village to the rest of the world? What happens when I can provide a job that pays two or three times the average income and they can stay in their ancestral lands instead of having to come to the big city? It’s a two-way street. This is a good thing for everybody.”

The network is expected to roll out this coming September. The equipment is ordered, but the rollout timeline will depend on its delivery.

Header image courtesy of Creative Commons. In-text image courtesy of Alaska Business.