This is the transcript for episode 362 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, Christopher interviews Matt Rantanen, wearer of many hats, about creative solutions for connecting tribal lands. Listen to the episode, or read the transcript below.
Jess Del Fiacco: Welcome to episode 362 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This is Jess Del Fiacco filling in for Lisa Gonzalez. This week, Christopher chats with Matt Rantanen, director of technology at the Southern California Tribal Chairman's Association and director of the Tribal Digital Village Network. They discuss Matt's experiences finding creative solutions for better connectivity in Indian country, which often involves working throughout tricky terrain. Matt also talks about how the FCC's impact on tribal communities has changed in recent years, why broadband is continuing to become more and more important on reservations, and some promising new tools that are becoming available. We also get to learn about Matt's newest project, a company called Arcadian Infracom that's working to create diverse fiber paths throughout the U.S., thanks to some innovative partnerships with tribal communities. Now here's Matt and Christopher.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and today I'm talking to my good friend Matt Rantanen who — now pace yourself for this — is the director of technology of Southern California Tribal Chairman's Association and director of the Tribal Digital Village Network. Welcome back, Matt.
Matt Rantanen: Hey, good to be here, Chris.
Christopher Mitchell: So I'm excited. I know that you have a very interesting project going on in the southwest that we're going to talk about here in a minute, but first of all, I think just for people who haven't heard of it before, do you want to just very quickly remind us what Tribal Digital Village is?
Matt Rantanen: Sure. The Tribal Digital Village is an initiative that was started with a Hewlett Packard grant back in 2001 that essentially was designed to bring resource programs to the tribal facilities of the member tribes of Southern California Tribal Chairman's Association, which there are now 20 member tribes. We were at 19 at the time. And each of the reservations got some funding and computer equipment to build a resource program or resource center — if they already had that, it enhanced it — so that kids had places to go after school to do homework and study, and community members as well. A network to the outbound internet was created to support each of those locations, and that network has grown into what we call TDV Net. And TDV Net is now over 650 miles of point-to-point and point-to-multipoint links with 10 gig fiber at the headend and 10 gig fiber at the tailend of the network for redundancy and about 400 homes and right around 1,500 transient users.
Christopher Mitchell: And you've been on top of all kinds of interesting wireless ways to solve this problem, right? I mean, you have the solar powered antennae in multiple areas, you've been doing stuff in the white spaces with Microsoft, all kinds of stuff, right?
Matt Rantanen: Yeah. You know, you get in a situation where you have really diverse geography, really tough to build situations. We have mountain tops and valleys, and it has presented every single obstacle that you could possibly imagine. So we've come up with every single possible solution. Duct tape, chicken wire, you name it, we've put it together. You know, some of the frequencies that are being becoming available to us, like white space, EBS, and a few other things, we're starting to play in those realms so that we can expand our footprint, shoot through some trees, kind of bend around corners, get some of that neater stuff that works a little bit better than line of sight. So we're excited that there's some opportunity there. But yeah, we've had to pull some tricks out of our hat, that's for sure, to make this happen, and we have 23 towers with 20 of them running off grid on solar.
Christopher Mitchell: Now remind me, we've talked about this before, but what is the state — not that you are representative of all of the tribes across the United States — but what is the situation in general on reservations regarding telecommunications services?
Matt Rantanen: It's still pretty dismal. You know, the plain old copper network to plain old telephone service is still right around 70 percent penetration, so 30 percent of the folks that are on the reservation can't dial 911 on the land line. You know, cellular is starting to creep in a bit, but there are plenty of places where we could show you no signal. The fun thing is to bring representatives of the FCC out to the reservation to drive them around and look at them struggle to try to figure out how to stay connected with their phones. And, you know, as far as broadband technology and penetration in Indian country, projects like the Tribal Digital Village Network, like Red Spectrum in Coeur d'Alene, Yurok and Karuk tribes in northern California — you know, a handful of tribes are actually putting together networks that are serving their communities. And they're actually getting to the point where they're 100 percent access, you know, whatever the take rate is, and so they actually have opportunities for their folks to connect. But it's not widespread. There's 573 federally recognized tribes in the U.S., 320 reservations in the lower 48, and we're looking at, you know, a fraction of those people that have access to this. There's only 12 tribal telcos as well, so you know, the area is still small. We're growing and the shift in the mentality about what broadband is to a tribe and the tribal community and what opportunities may lie ahead as far as education and retaining their educated youth as part of their population base — things have changed. There's been a shift, but we certainly don't have the penetration that we need.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, one of the things that I hope that we'll see is that you'll have more tools. Not just you, although frankly I think I'm always interested to see what happens whenever you get a new tool because whether it's welding in your shop, in your house, or you know, building the networks in different areas, you're pretty handy with it. But I was actually going to try and get into this discussion around EBS, the educational broadcast spectrum, if I remember correctly. What is happening there? I mean, you can assume that maybe a number of the listeners have never even heard of EBS before, so what's happening there? What's the potential?
Matt Rantanen: So educational broadcast spectrum, EBS, was designed essentially to be able to connect educational facilities with wireless, and it is in the sweeter spectrum range, cellular style range. It can be distributed like LTE, and there's a few demonstration projects in Indian country that have been done. One of the leaders in the use of this technology is MuralNet, M-U-R-A-L Net, and the CEO Mariel Triggs is a big advocate for connecting tribal communities. She's working on the ground in the southwest. And they connected the Havasupai down in the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and that's one of the coolest projects they use this for. Basically, the spectrum is kind of on the chopping block at the moment at the FCC. You know, the comments are open and potentially closed, I don't know the date, but a lot of stuff has been said. The tribal aspect of things — and a lot of people have pushed on the tribal side of things, all the way up to the chairman of the FCC and the commissioners, that there's a great opportunity for tribes to be able to utilize this spectrum because of the types of spectrum it is, like cellular, and to be able to use it to deploy to their communities. And we're pushing for a tribal priority. The drafts that we've seen of the potential rulemaking are addressing this as a tribal priority. We just don't know to what extent things will change in the 11th hour, but, you know, fingers are crossed because this is another swath of spectrum, it's a fairly big chunk, and it opens up some doors for some real creative use in Indian country.
Christopher Mitchell: What does "tribal priority" mean? Like, what would you be able to do with that?
Matt Rantanen: So, there's an example of tribal priority with the FM radio spectrum. The tribes . . . So typically FM radio has a window of opportunity. The window opens, you can apply for a license, you have a competition between like, you know, the value of what you're bringing to the table, with that license there's a purchase fee, and then there's an award given in a region. So with the tribal priority on that component, if the tribe is serving its own tribal land, that tribe gets priority. There is no fee associated with the license, and there is no window of application; that window is always open for the tribal community. You know, we feel that spectrum over tribal lands, though the United States does not identify that as tribal owned, it would make sense that the tribes would have first access to that because the tribes are typically the carrier of last resort that would serve that community because the incumbents are not interested in serving, you know, a low population density. The lack of ROI just forces them to say that, you know, it doesn't make sense to put the infrastructure in; we can't recover the costs at all. But we can, from the ground up, and we just need the opportunity and the access to the spectrum, so that's kind of where we're coming from.
Christopher Mitchell: I want to ask you a question about the FCC more generally. I don't recall if we've talked about this in past podcasts, but you and I have certainly talked about it in panels we were on together or things like that. You knokw, if we go back to the beginning of the Obama administration, a lot of the public interest groups and myself, we really did not like Chairman Genachowski, thought he got a lot of things wrong. And at the same time I think, you know, your impression is that he actually did a lot for tribes, and I think I like to bring this up because a lot of people forget that tribes have your own interests. You're not just rural America. There's a lot of different issues. And so, I want to get a sense, if you want to just talk briefly about that and then about this whole larger area that I'm trying to set up. You know, Chairman Wheeler came in in the second half of the Obama Administration. I liked him. A lot of the public interest groups liked him a lot more. I think he wasn't as good for the tribes. And then Chairman Pai took over into the Trump administration, and I think on the issue of lifeline, he's been really bad for a lot of the lower income members of tribes living in tribal areas. So I'm curious how it's been more generally though and if you want to just say, you know, a brief overview of your impressions of the FCC over the past 10 years or so.
Matt Rantanen: Sure. So when Genachowski was in place — well let's rewind one step. We had Michael Copps in there as an interim chair of the FCC and that was one of the best things ever. You know, Michael Copps is one of the biggest champions of Indian country. And I think, moving into Genachowski being the chair, I think a lot of that sentiment from Copps moved forward with Genachowski on the tribal front, and he was there as an advocate internal for a little bit of that time. Obviously the administration, the Obama Administration, was geared towards helping tribal communities on some level, and so you know, there wasn't opposition to helping tribes. I think the real catalyst that caused us to be able to move under Genachowski was the fact that we started the Office of Native Affairs and Policy at the FCC during that time. Geoffrey Blackwell was named chief of that office, and several of the intertribal organizations and tribal leadership groups that are in the U.S. endorsed Geoffery Blackwell to be that position and he was placed in that position. And we had, you know, a very strong advocate inside the FCC who was pushing internal for tribal issues, started the Native Nations Broadband Task Force, of which I served two terms under Genachowski and then I was reaffirmed under Wheeler, and we were able to move the needle quite dramatically during those times. The shift — essentially Genachowski, in my mind, was like, okay, you know, push everything at me; I'll push back on the things I can't do. And so we pushed everything we could push at Genachowski, and we got 11 out of 12. You know, it was that kind of a win. Wheeler came in a little bit different, you know, coming from the cable industry and the wireless industry and, you know, being in the hall of fame for both. I think, you know, he had a little bit different take on things and he was a little bit more calculatin. We had very good meetings on the eighth floor with him, through the National Congress of American Indians. And he was engaged. He wanted to be supportive, but at the same time, you know, he was playing his role as he saw it, and I think we got less done under Wheeler. I think what happened with Wheeler and then transitioned into Chairman Pai with Lifeline, I think actually it started its genesis with Wheeler and maybe was influenced by Wheeler, and then Chairman Pai was the one that executed on that. And it's unfortunate because that has been very damaging to Indian country. As we saw in court, you know, that decision was overturned, specifically in the tribal areas that that were in question, and you know, the impact of the tribal people was massive. So currently under this administration, though tribes are not a priority —
Christopher Mitchell: So Matt, quickly, I think a reminder, and let me know if I'm getting this right because you and I have talked about this before, but the issue that has been raised regarding Lifeline is that there are a number of companies that are basically trying to scam the federal government to get these subsidies. And so, they go and they basically pray on low income populations that live in Indian country, and the response from the FCC, and particularly under Chairman Pai, has been to say, well, let's just not give any money to Indian country effectively to try and, like, harm the scammers, but also having this effect of taking phones away from, I don't know how many people, but lots of people who really need them.
Matt Rantanen: Yeah. So it gets even worse than that. So essentially what he's done, Chairman Pai has done with Lifeline in his thought process on how to solve the waste, fraud, and abuse is to carve out on the map areas where he feels the waste, fraud, and abuse is the heaviest. So if you're going to be looking for a kickback from the federal government and you're going to scam the federal government, you're going to look for the biggest kickback, biggest bang for your buck. Well, tribal community Lifeline gets a bigger discount and a bigger payback rate from the FCC than a normal Lifeline customer off of reservation or off of tribal lands because the opportunity on tribal lands is far harder to connect people than it is in non-tribal lands. So obviously they're praying on the biggest dollar that they can recover from the FCC. And so we've seen actual pickup trucks full of phones drive into fiestas and powwows and actually hand them out off the back of a truck. We've actually witnessed them asking, "Okay, what's your name?" And then you know, the husband comes up and says the name and then signs up for the phone, and then the wife is standing there and then — you know, the tribes don't exactly understand the rule makings on how this is actually supposed to be distributed, and then they say, "What's your name?" and she explains her name as the same last name and the same household. And then what they do is they tweak the spelling of the last name and hand the phone to the woman. And then, let's say there's a 17 year old child in the house that's with the group at the time. Then they will ask the name of that person and they will tweak that last name or they'll tweak the address to cook the database. You know, it's super frustrating to see that happen. So basically by redrawing the line on the map, he is effectively saying that he has the ability to change sovereign rights, sovereign territory. Those lines on the map are there for a reason. We're sovereign dependents of the United States federal government. He's saying that he can redefine that area and pull services from that when he really doesn't have the right to do that, and I think that's why it got hung up in court.
Christopher Mitchell: So I want to get back then to the overall impressions, aside from just Lifeline, but any sense of how priorities around the needs in Indian country have changed under the Trump administration.
Matt Rantanen: So interestingly enough, I don't know that we are in favor at the moment with this administration, but we have the opportunity —
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to the club.
Matt Rantanen: Yeah. We have the opportunity, however, to adapt, right? So we see opportunity even though there is, you know, a different playing field and a different set of players with some of the announcements and some of the focus that's happened. And we think to gain more voters that are aligned with this administration the administration is looking to serve broadband to rural customers throughout the United States. They're very focused on rural connectivity, and those rural voters are typically farther to the right on the spectrum of politics then to the left. And so, that would increase the voter base and service to the voter base that I think aligns with the administration, which, you know, be it what it is, we have the opportunity to convert that into opportunity for rural connectivity and tribes are 90-some percent rural, and we can take advantage of some of those opportunities that are coming out. And we can even actually get funding and things through like the RUS program with the ReConnect and different things to be able to bring rural broadband out, as long as we bring that broadband out with a focus on the region instead of just a micro focus on the tribe.
Christopher Mitchell: This is a great opportunity then to talk about your next project because you're not busy enough, you don't travel enough. You're working on Partnering and Business Development for something called Arcadian Infracom. What is the deal with that?
Matt Rantanen: So about a year and a half to almost two years ago now, we — we meaning the original four or five people from Arcadian Infracom — got together around a meeting at PTC, Pacific Telecom Conference. A couple of problems presented themselves to the group on a couple of individual pathways, and like minds together trying to solve the same thing — it was one of those epiphany moments when, you know, the cofounders of Arcadian Infracom, Dan Davis and Derek Garnier, thought, "Oh, what if we do this?" And then the other one was like, "Yeah, if we did that, we could do this." And then all of a sudden this spawned a broadband fiber infrastructure building company, not a service service provider but an actual dark fiber builder, that is serving the top tier customers, that being, you know, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, as the top tier customers connecting their data centers through, through new — and then, you know, quotes around that — "new" routes through the United States to be able to create diversity in the fiber paths that don't exist today. Everybody seems to be building on the same Rights-of-Way, and it presents a real security risk for the infrastructure as well as just a risk in failure, to build in the same Rights-of-Way and not have a more diverse fiber structure of the United States or fiber map of the United States. So one of the things that happened —
Christopher Mitchell: It's not like we're seeing unprecedented hurricanes, fires, and other forms of flooding and natural disaster. I don't know why you would be worried about that, Matt.
Matt Rantanen: Yeah. Global warming, what's that? I could talk about that all day long with Tribal Digital Village and solar panels. Oddly enough, we get way more clouds than we ever have in the last 19 years. I've been here for 19 years and I've seen three to five days in storms on average in the beginning. We are now seven to 10 days in the clouds without solar recovery, so yeah, I don't know what you're talking about. However —
Christopher Mitchell: Brutal. Go ahead.
Matt Rantanen: This diversity in the fiber path build creates opportunity for a bunch of reasons. So, these over the top hyperscalers, whatever you want to call that top tier customer level, is driving the fiber map, is driving the build map in the United States today and globally. It's not the carriers anymore. The carriers are more reactive than anything. They're picking up, you know, fiber assets on routes that are being built, but they are no longer capital heavy where they can actually go out and build new infrastructure, greenfield infrastructure. So a company like Arcadian Infracom is timed perfectly to be able to support these top tier customers, and that is the business model. However, we have a freedom in design of that route. We have the ability to draw new lines through the map. We all know that 20 years ago, 19-20 years ago, when all seven of the networks that were built across the United States were built and valued on route miles built in a day: "How valuable is that company? I don't know. How many miles have they built?" Well, that kind of a race across the country with fiber build really dictated how that fiber was going to be laid. It was avoiding every pitfall, every geographic, obstacle, every tribal reservation because they did not have the time to negotiate an easement or a right of way on each of the reservations of the 320 land masses they had to get around to get across the country. They created this map on the United States where there's these giant holes in the fiber. There is no opportunity. So these new lines that Arcadian Infracom are drawing between these data centers for these high value customers. You know, they have to be from A to B with a certain amount of latency. Well, within that latency there's a lot of leeway on where that route lays on the ground.
Christopher Mitchell: So if for instance, you know of Amazon and Facebook, just for me to pick out two companies. They may have data centers in, like, parts of Colorado or New Mexico, and you're basically going to get fiber between the two of them but in the course of how you do it, you can figure out whether you want to connect pueblos or other reservations or if you wanted to avoid them, which obviously in this case you wouldn't want to do.
Matt Rantanen: Sure. So our CEO, Dan Davis, essentially built, bought, and acquired fiber for CenturyLink for the last, I don't know, 15 years. And so he is self aware that he was part of that problem in consolidating all those fiber companies into one, and in the process, in his original builds, when he built one of those networks across the country that he was very aware of avoiding those pitfalls. He is now doing penance, if you will. We're holding him to the grindstone. He is going to lead this charge by dragging that fiber path through little town USA, zigzagging it back and forth to catch every reservation, every opportunity that the region needs, the rural region needs and leaving connectivity opportunities at the doorstep. So one of the things I did in the Obama Administration was work with the CTO of the United States to identify a solution for tribes and why they don't have access to fiber. Well it was a mapping project. We worked with all of the carriers. We overlaid, you know maps under a nondisclosure agreement over the reservation boundaries. We did some mapping work. There are 8,000 middle mile fiber miles missing from the map to be able to connect to reservations. So just to get middle mile fiber to a key location on each of the reservations in the lower 48, 320, that's how many fiber miles are missing — 8,000 miles. So this kind of a build drags that fiber path and presents opportunity and connectivity at very affordable rates at the doorstep of each of these locations — Little Town USA, tribes, pueblos, you name it — across that landscape, and with our partners and other small carriers, they will be able to build out those regions.
Christopher Mitchell: That's pretty great. What are — is there, like, a first project that you can talk about or is this something that's not public yet?
Matt Rantanen: No, so there's an announced route. It's on the website. So we did a little play with the "dot" and the ".com" so it's arcadianinfra.com. A-R-C-A-D-I-A-N-I-N-F-R-A.com. If you go there, you can scroll down and you can see the map. There's announced — there's a solid line on the map that looks like a "Y", and it goes from Phoenix through Cameron, Arizona, to Salt Lake City and from Phoenix to Cameron, Arizona, to Denver, Colorado. That "Y" creates a convergence path intentionally on the Navajo reservation. One of the things that happened and that is actually happening this year is the coal burning power generation station that's on the Navajo reservation is shutting down. It is a massive percentage of the tribal income annually. It is approximately 3,000 jobs. And you know, it shifts the landscape on the reservation and they're definitely trying to figure out how to solve that. Well by converging three fiber paths on the reservation at that location in Cameron, Cameron has access to multiple water sources, the utility company of the tribe has access to that, there are multiple power providers that are in that region that can provide redundant power source, and the fiber build from Arcadian would provide diverse routes in and out of that potential data center location.
Matt Rantanen: So a data center build is imminent on the Navajo reservation. We can't pick up 3,000 jobs with that, but you know, there would be a lot of workforce needed throughout the phases of the build of that and then the maintenance of that moving forward. Not to mention, it just creates a lot of opportunity on the reservation. So that's the first announced route. There is a route that has a dotted line that goes east and west off of that route. It's supports Los Angeles, essentially through Flagstaff running on the I-40 to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and then through to Dallas. That east-west route is, you know, in the works and we're comfortable putting it on the page because we've had conversations with each of the states involved, a lot of the key stakeholders involved, and it will be the next route. And it's very exciting because it will do things like connect all of the southwest universities to capacity for their super computer centers. It will do things like bring data center traffic for some of our customers east-west at a capacity that they don't currently have through that region. It connects oddly, like, Dallas to Salt Lake, which isn't really a direct path currently. You don't have to go around the Navajo reservation anymore. You can go through the Navajo reservation, where before you used to have to go sometimes from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles to Phoenix or from Denver to El Paso to Phoenix. Now you can go Denver to Phoenix. That's a huge shift. It also changes the landscape on where people are placing data centers and you know, growing opportunities moving forward.
Christopher Mitchell: All right, well I remember that one of the challenges you had — I mean, I can't imagine with how much satisfaction it is that you can talk about having a 10 gig link on both sides of your network now, because there was a time when there was no off ramps, right? You had fiber nearby but you couldn't touch it.
Matt Rantanen: Yeah. It's been amazing. Indian country has that problem, right, with the 8,000 missing miles. Well, we identified a fiber opportunity close to the TDV network, and I could not for the life of me for at least six years break into that fiber. I could not get the fiber. And then when I could finally get access to the people that would finally sell me the fiber, you know, $17 a meg per month, which you cannot afford to do at scale. And so, you know, it was a relationship with a state CIO. It was a public announcement of tribal aligned with government. It was them getting me in the door to the right negotiation people. Well, with Arcadian Infracom and I'm with a group of people that understands that level, right? So I'm in the door doing business development, helping do this. So Arcadian worked a year in secret with the Navajo nation to be able to go across the reservation. The Navajo nation has been advertising for decades a $1 million a mile easement if you want a Right-of-Way across their land, 27,000 square miles or something crazy. You know, it was a $1 million a mile, linear mile, and it was basically a sign on the outside of the reservation that said, "Go away. We don't want to deal with you anymore," because they've been mistreated for so long. Well, they actually came to us about how to solve the problem with the closing down on the power generation station and what could they do with it. And they were thinking data center and data center makes a lot of sense. The problem is data center without fiber is a warehouse, a rather hot warehouse. So, you know, the real solution to the problem is a fiber path through the reservation, and the tribe is benefiting greatly from the relationship and the easement. They're actually getting dark fiber, they're getting lit services, 400 gig lit services on reservation, and they're getting revenue share off the top. So it's a great opportunity, it's a great relationship, but we hope we're changing the landscape for future fiber builds from other companies to work more closely with the tribe as a partner rather than just an obstacle.
Christopher Mitchell: Great. Well, I've really appreciated this discussion to get a better sense of what's going on and that there's progress. You know, it's really great seeing that there's so many more opportunities on the horizon.
Matt Rantanen: Yeah. I mean, there needs to be many more obviously, but you know, this is a big start. We hopefully will shift the landscape a little bit with the way that we've done this deal, and as this starts to gain momentum and more builds come online, we think we can, you know, make a difference. And that's what we're here to do. We're trying to help solve that rural connectivity problem. You know, America's got a lot of people that live outside the city centers and they just don't have access to the resources they need and a lot of those people are on reservations, so it's really important to get those people connected.
Christopher Mitchell: Great. Thank you Matt.
Matt Rantanen: No problem, Chris. Good to talk to you.
Jess Del Fiacco: That was Christopher and Matt Rantanen discussing connectivity in tribal communities. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.orgs/broadbandbits. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is@communitynets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other podcasts from ILSR, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them wherever you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle licensed through Creative Commons. Thank you for listening to episode 362 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.