Thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript for the episode 76 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast with Matthew Rantanen on the Tribal Digital Village wireless network. Listen to this episode here.
Matthew Rantanen: The network is basically designed to provide broadband services to an otherwise overlooked rural community.
Lisa Gonzalez: Hi there. This is the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Lisa Gonzalez here.
In today's episode, Chris talks with Matthew Rantanen, the Director of Technology for the Southern California Tribal Chairmen's Association and Director of the Tribal Digital Village Initiative. Matthew also works with a long list of groups that focus on expanding access and adoption in the Native American community. Serving underserved or unserved communities remains one of the greatest challenges for the United States. Native American reservations are some of the most isolated communities in the digital world, because they have been ignored by the major providers. The Tribal Digital Village aims to change that. Matthew tells how the initiative began, using unlicensed spectrum to give California Native American communities the ability to serve themselves. While the Tribal Digital Village brings connectivity to a specific underserved community, it's also a test case for new technology in rural communities. Here are Matthew and Chris.
Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. And today I'm talking with Matthew Rantanen, the Director of Technology for the Southern California Tribal Chairmen's Association and Director of the Tribal Digital Village Initiative. Welcome to the show.
Matthew Rantanen: Thank you very much. It's great to be here.
Chris: You wear a number of hats. Quickly, just tell us the various other titles you have, that I haven't gone over.
Matthew: Just to give you an overview, I'm on the Nations Broadband Task Force at the FCC. I'm on the Communications, Security, Reliability, and Interoperability Council at the FCC. I am the Co-Chair of the Technology & Telecommunications Subcommittee at the National Congress of American Indians, as well as their Technology Task Force Co-Chair. And Chairman of the Board at Native Public Media.
Chris: So, can you tell us a little bit about the Tribal Digital Village? What is it?
Matthew: The Tribal Digital Village is essentially an initiative that is carried on through the Southern California Tribal Chairmen's Association. But originally, it began as a grant, provided by the Hewlett Packard Corporation -- their philanthropy effort back in 2001 -- to bridge the digital divide to communities that were left behind. So, in 2001, a professor from the University of California at San Diego, Ross Frank; a technologist named Hans-Werner Braun, out of the computer center at UCSD; and the Tribal Chairmen's Association worked together. Ross wrote the grant to Hewlett Packard, and Hewlett Packard awarded it, to get us of the ground and running the network, as well as building resource programs, after-school programs, and helping to enhance the libraries and existing facilities in labs -- computer labs -- on the reservations. And that grant lasted three years. And it essentially increased the resource programs at each of the reservations. If they already had a resource program; it enhanced it. If they didn't have one, it started one off. It made buildings. It installed computer equipment: up to $4 million worth of desktop, peripherals, etc. We even started up a business-to-business solutions marketing company with a digital press out of that grant. And that company still runs today. It's called Tribal Print Source -- is the solutions facility that was designed to bring revenue into the system.
So, TDV created a network -- a high-speed wireless network that supports nineteen reservations in southern California. Seventeen of those are in San Diego, two in Riverside County. And the network is basically designed to provide broadband services to an otherwise overlooked rural community. And these nineteen reservations are spread out throughout the southern California area. Mostly, they're in the east side of the county, not next to the ocean. And the geography is mountainous terrain, valleys, a lot of elevation change, a lot of trees. And it's in an area where the incumbents just are not interested in return on investment. It just doesn't exist for them, so they're not doing major build-out. A lot of our reservations still have problems with power, and, you know, general electricity connections. We have a lot of reservations that still don't have plain old telephone service to, you know, a lot of their populations. We see that broadband being the important tool, the important method to deliver technology, communication, entertainment -- you know, interactivity with the rest of the world -- in the rural communities, that it was more important to get something like that out here. So the Tribal Digital Village Initiative exists on that front. Today, it is a network of over 600 miles of point-to-point and point-to-multipoint links, supporting, currently, s hundred tribal municipalities, and I think we've eclipsed 600 homes, out of 2,900 homes on the reservation.
Chris: How did this project come about? In the sense that -- I mean, you're the kind of guy, that I've gotten to know over the years, who doesn't really need to ask permission. You figure out how to DO things. And so, what was the state when you first came in and said, all right, we're going to do this wireless thing, and this is how we're going to make it work? Can you walk us through that a little bit?
Matthew: Sure. The project actually started in March of 2001. I came on in October. And so they had already gotten moving. They started with a resource program piece. They started deploying money to help build buildings and set up things. Hans-Werner Braun, out of UCSD Supercomputer Center, has been doing wireless technology forever. And Hans was our mentor. At the time, Michael Peralta was our network administrator, and we paired him up with Hans-Werner. Hans-Werner set him down for literally 30-45 minutes, showed him how to make a network connection with two radios, and said, OK, go do that on mountaintops.
And so, prior to that, we had a bunch of tribal youth go out and actually hike the mountaintops, take pictures, use GPS, and find locations where they could see from one reservation to another, or from one reservation to SEVERAL reservations. And they located all the cool vantage points that were on reservations, for us to start using. So, that kind of was all gelling at the same time.
Once Michael understood how to do the network piece, we actually were able to start deploying actual connections from a data center to the individual locations of the resource programs. And so the initial objective was to connect those resource programs, and then expand from there. It was really fly by the seat of our pants. Michael and I and a couple others, we're just doing it, you know. The opportunity was there, the technology we'd seen Hans-Werner do, to bring seismic activity back from the desert areas -- of the fault areas in California -- back to UCSD. We saw how that worked. He actually connected a couple of the reservations as he was doing his work, and handed it over to us. And we just ran with it.
Chris: You said the hiking up to the top of the ridges and whatnot. How did you solve the electricity problem?
Matthew: Well, interestingly enough, we used the power of the sun. So, all of our backbone and most of our intermediate towers rely on solar. We have little mini solar farms everywhere on our network. You know, a couple times, on our network, we've been close enough in proximity to a reservation that was interested in running electricity to the tower. And -- you know, maybe 300 yards is the closest. And then those would have been connected to the grid. Otherwise, we're running on the sun. We're looking for alternative solutions, using wind to back up that sun, for our storm days that are in San Diego. I mean, we have perfect climate. We do have San Diego sun -- 70 degrees and sunny all year 'round -- but the mountains themselves get hung up in the clouds during some part of the rainy seasons, and we'll lose, you know, 5-10 days of sun. And if we do that, we actually have a problem keeping the sites up. So we're looking for a wind solution that's effective, safe for wildlife, not noisy, not visually, you know, ugly. And something that, you know, just assists us on that front.
Chris: You've mentioned that some of these reservations is southern California have lacked telephone access. How common is that on reservations across the United States?
Matthew: It's very common. You know, less than 70 percent of tribal homes have access to plain old telephone service. And so that is a -- that's a pretty massive number. Now, I do know that cellular has probably penetrated some of that 30+ percent that doesn't have a landline. But we're certainly not at 100 percent. And then, you know, broadband's ridiculous. It's -- less than 10 percent have access, let alone adoption.
Chris: And some of the stimulus projects are addressing that in just a few areas. Which is helpful, I'm sure. But how replicable is what you've done? Not so much the solar and that approach, but in terms of just building a wireless network?
Matthew: It's completely reproducible. Um. One prime example is the Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation. Valerie Fast Horse is their Director of Technology, or their IT Director up there. And she came down to the Tribal Digital Village and looked around and thought, wow, you can do this all with 2.4 Wi-Fi?
Chris: What's "2.4 Wi-Fi"?
Matthew: 2.4-gigahertz wireless is essentially the frequency, or wavelength, of the communications technology, that is an actual unlicensed, or license-exempt, spectrum that has been essentially -- allowed the American public to build their own wireless networks, without registering them, essentially.
Chris: So, you didn't need permission. And Valerie wouldn't need permission to go back -- Valerie Fast Horse.
Matthew: Right. So we didn't need permission to build this network. There are several -- several but a lot -- wireless spectrums that allow you to build networks without registration. And they're basically -- they were considered, I assume, exploration or development networks. Or "hobby" networks, if you will. But a lot of us have turned them into very professional, functional, active networks, over the years. And so, Valerie went back to Coeur d'Alene and has completely outdone the Tribal Digital Village -- used it as an idea, and then expanded upon it. She's got a hybridized network. You know, fiber and wireless and, I believe, even mesh at this point. And it's pretty impressive. So --
Chris: Excellent! So, this is something that people can do on the reservation, or even -- anywhere, really, without having to get any changes from the FCC.
But you're involved with the FCC. What sorts of things does the FCC need to do to give people like you more tools to be able to build better networks?
Matthew: The FCC has done a few things in past few years that have really helped out at least tribes. And I think that's probably also going to help rural situations as well. They first adopted the Office of Native Affairs and Policy. They finally put that piece of their puzzle in place with the FCC. So now we actually have an office, a staff, a chief of staff, and somebody to deal with within the FCC, that actually spans across all of bureaus and talks to the 8th floor, which is the Chairman's office. And works with the commissioners to develop best practices for tribal situations. So that's really been helpful.
The real, like, nuts and bolts of it is, unlicensed spectrum. The more unlicensed spectrum access that tribes and rural communities have, the better the opportunities are. We have, you know, so much different geography, and so much different roadblocks and obstacles, to actually deploy to all of these homes that are spread out in this rural community that we need all of the different types of frequencies. So, the short wavelengths and the long wavelengths. The differences being that some will go through trees better, some will kind of bounce off rocks and go around corners slightly. You know, and then, we were talking about the white spaces issues -- the TV band stuff -- where you can actually kind of have rabbit ears broadcast Internet, and have some solutions there that are not line-of-sight technology, which is really an advanced state. So that's the kind of thing that can really move the ball forward.
The other is funding. You know, I understand it doesn't need to be paid for by the government. Because a lot of these folks will find other ways of getting funded, whether it be private funding or other alternative government methods of funding, or education funding, or even private resources within themselves. Opening up access to funding opportunities, partnership opportunities, at the federal level is really key.
And I think, lastly, is not imposing any rules that stop us from building these networks, to serve ourselves when there is no other alternative.
Chris: And what kind of rules would those be?
Matthew: There's nineteen states that are currently blocking municipal networks. So the small towns and townships and corporations -- or, can't build their own wireless networks to serve themselves when nobody else is serving them, or the competition is not favorable. That's the kind of stuff that -- we need to have the FCC step in and help out, and make sure that, you know, if you have the ability to serve yourself, and you have the wherewithal to make it happen, that somebody isn't imposing some rule that you can't actually help yourself.
Chris: Right. I think California's not actually listed among those nineteen, because cities have the authority to do pretty much what they want in this area. But community service districts in California are extremely limited. And so -- I think the term is "public service districts." It's more in rural areas, or -- they provide infrastructure. But under California law, if they build a broadband network, they actually have to privatize it as soon as someone comes along and makes them an offer that is for fair market value of what the network's worth. There are some very odd rules about it, that would -- I think not impact you, necessarily, on the reservation. But if you wanted to build a network that involved aggregating multiple communities in an area, certainly could impact you.
Matthew: Yeah. So, the reservation being sovereign entities -- And all of our network is currently on reservation land, and, you know, owned and operated by tribes. It's really one of those situations where the rule doesn't apply. But, you know, I'm sure there are some gray areas there. Where we start serving non-tribal customers, you know, how does that affect things? I -- but, yeah, it's definitely something to look at when giving advice to rural communities that aren't tribal.
Chris: So, the last thing I wanted to talk to you about was the Native Public Media, which you're a part of. Tell us what your role is, and what the organization does.
Matthew: I'm the Chairman of the Board of Directors of Native Public Media. They basically are the -- I think the biggest voice in supporting native media. So primarily terrestrial radio station. And now Internet radios. Native Public Media supports approximately 46 tribal radio stations, and there are several more coming on-board. We do several things at Native Public Media. We work with each of the reservation stations to make sure they have -- their compliance issue is in order with the FCC, and any grant funding that they have. We help them with accounting and auditing. We help them with station content and connecting to other organizations that provide content or create content. We also help direct them in creating their own content. We kind of organize, you know, a way for them to communicate with each other. And also offer up a big resource page with nativepublicmedia.org . There's tons of resources there. And tons of content and different information there, for them, as a major resource, to stay in play. Now, that also is spinning off into the Internet radio, which some of those same stations have an Internet presence. And then, I believe there's even a -- one or two of the stations that just have an Internet presence, don't actually have terrestrial radio at the moment. But it's a key piece of the native infrastructure. It is important because it's like the first-responders network. It's the sole way they communicate with their community when there is an emergency. They can run on a generator. Everybody can hop in a car and turn it on and listen on a radio, when the power's out. You know, when there's different national disasters. There's -- you know, we have a lot of fire issues in southern California, and so that's a really key thing. Lately, we have been working on, also, you know, other forms of media. So if you want media and streaming content, we're trying to help just
like broaden the horizons of the media possibilities. We've also kind of joined forces with the Native American Journalists Association, and NAJA and NPM had their first Native Media Summit together. It's become really powerful. You have some really great journalists now working in multi-media, rather than just paper, and really just kind of getting the native voice out there, and supporting the native voice.
Chris: There's so many different things I'd like to go into. I mean, we've just covered the top of a lot of interesting areas. But we're running out of time. So, is there anything else that we should make sure we cover in this first interview?
Matthew: The more times that we actually get the story out, the better off the future is. I really appreciate the opportunity to be, you know, a part of this, and hope that this opens yet another door.
Chris: Sounds good. I'm sure we'll have you back in a few weeks to follow up.
Matthew: Cool. Thanks, Chris.
Lisa: Information about the Southern California Tribal Chairmen's Association and the Tribal Digital Village is available at sctdv.net . We hope to have Matthew back soon for another show. We want to dig even deeper into all of the benefits coming out of the initiative. Until then, we encourage you to contact us with questions or ideas for future podcasts. You can e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can also follow us on Twitter. Our handle is @communitynets . This show was released on December 10th, 2013. Thank you again to the group Haggard Beat for their song, "Lazlo," licensed using Creative Commons. Have a great day, and thank you for listening.