After years of struggling to obtain reliable Internet connectivity, The Hoh Tribe in western Washington has entered a beta trial with SpaceX’s StarLink satellite Internet service, drastically improving the community's Internet access speed and capacity.
Russ Elliot, Director of the newly formed State Broadband Office, had been working closely with Melvinjohn Ashue, the former Vice-Chairmen of the Hoh Tribe. Russ has a background running an Internet Service Provider (ISP) and is skilled at networking with technology companies to tap into resources and opportunities to help connect reservations, rural communities, and others.
Notably, Washington state emergency responders had also begun using StarLink in areas decimated by wildfires and since, StarLink has had a positive working relationship with people within the Washington state government. When Starlink’s beta began, Russ caught wind and introduced Starlink’s people to the Hoh tribe, and they shared their ongoing difficulties. Starlink was eager to help and excited that the Hoh tribe reservation was well positioned in relation to the satellites Starlink had in orbit at the time.
A Plug and Play Broadband Solution
The setup was relatively fast, taking about a month in all, and logistically not complicated. Starlink held virtual meetings with the Hoh tribe council explaining the technology, setup, and service. The company also sent representatives to the Hoh reservation to test out the product on site, and after the tribe council discussed the service with community members 18 of 23 homes signed up and the satellite receiver kits were sent out shortly after.
Melvinjohn explained that “out of box to connectivity was about 5 minutes.” In the first week he tested speeds between 58 and 65 Mbps at each household, and more recently speeds had increased to about 179 Mbps. The Hoh Tribe’s council agreed to a three-year contract with an initial beta period, but the pricing for this agreement has not been disclosed. The tribe is paying for this collectively for the duration of this first contract, but will transfer the service to households themselves in the future.
That said, Starlink is expanding their pilot program with the service priced at $99 a month along with an additional $499 upfront cost to order the Starlink kit. Additionally, a Starlink representative noted to ILSR that they are open to wholesale arrangements, in which they could provide a “backhaul” service for smaller wireless networks or other smaller-scale network solutions.
A Long Time Coming
The Hoh Tribe and their reservation community have struggled for years to obtain funding to build their own network or the attention from providers to improve the reservation’s connectivity. Melvinjohn Ashue illustrated that frustrating logistics meant slow speeds: “previously during tax season, it took the accounting department probably about four days to download all that [tax documents] and send it all out and we had to shut everyone out [of the Internet service].” When they later moved the accounting department to the town of Forks (30 minutes north of the reservation) the same tax filing process took them about 30 minutes.
There was talk of getting fiber built out to the reservation at some point but the company they were in discussion with ended up deciding to run the fiber to the nearby prison instead. This also dampened the anticipated connectivity for 30 miles of homes along the highway to the reservation that would have benefited from a more ambitious fiber rollout.
Melvinjohn stressed that the new network has enabled the tribe to take part in the essential services they have been lacking, such as remote learning and telehealth. Crucially, during the current COVID-19 pandemic, Melvinjohn explained that children can connect to their remote classes in tandem with others in their household using the connections. Households and families can stream videos and have access to media that was inaccessible in the past.
Melvinjohn feels that Starlink is a positive and sustainable solution for the Hoh Tribe. That said, they are still as of now going forward with the construction of their own broadband build-out plan that they started in 2012, which would span from Forks to Grace Harbor. Melvinjohn noted that the Starlink network is an exponential improvement, but the Hoh tribe and their reservation community ultimately do want more control over their network and future Internet access.
Thanks to Michelle Andrews for tribal map.
Header image of the mouth of the Quillayute River from Wikimedia Comons by user DimiTalen, CC BY-SA 3.0