Nokia extends broadband to remote Native American tribes in the US
At an age when high-speed internet has become the driving force behind education, healthcare, business and commerce, there are those who have been left stranded on the other side of the digital divide, unable to conduct even the basic tasks online. A case in point are remote tribal nations in the United States that have struggled with unreliable internet connectivity for years with no relief in sight.
According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 2020, some 628,000 tribal households in the country did not have access to standard broadband. However, efforts are underway to address the issue by using the Tribal Educational Broadband Service (EBS) spectrum that leverages the frequency band 117 megahertz (MHz).
The program will serve tribal lands with a license for broadband and wireless networking buildouts and Nokia is playing its part by extending next generation private wireless to parts of North and South Dakota, Oklahoma and California. It is being done in partnership with NewCore Wireless, a company that provides innovative technology solutions to rural carriers.
The indigenous communities that are set to benefit from this endeavour include the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North and South Dakota and the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes in Oklahoma. The first tranche of deployments will cover 12,000-plus square miles and provide broadband to more than 15,000 tribal members.
Nokia’s rapid and cost-effective broadband connectivity such as 4.9G/LTE and 5G can cover large expanses and, that too, from a single base station. Private wireless, which relies on 4.9G/LTE technology will give homes and businesses access to broadband internet and mobile phone options in areas where coverage is minimal or absent.
For decades, the tribal communities had to rely on obsolete dial-up connection or use mobile phones that usually came tied with costly data plans since it was not possible to meet the upfront costs that service providers sought to put up infrastructure.
“A lot of people can't afford the initial start-up costs and are unable to proceed forward and even if somehow they are able to do that, on most occasions they’re always behind owing,” said Fred McLaughlin, General Manager of Standing Rock Telecommunications.
The situation further worsened after the COVID-19 pandemic. As schools, universities and businesses closed and local clinics became overwhelmed by patients seeking care, the need for robust connectivity was acutely felt.
Nokia is extending private wireless to parts of North and South Dakota, Oklahoma and California.
The window of opportunity
To stop the gap between the haves and have nots from widening further, the FCC offered the EBS spectrum in 2020. It was awarded to hundreds of federally recognized Native American tribes and encompasses tens of thousands of square miles, and millions of members. Available in most mobile phones, telephone switching equipment and add-on device, the spectrum allows the deployment of services at a short notice and is well-suited for 4G with the option to step up to 5G.
Raghav Sahgal, President of Cloud and Network Services at Nokia, highlighted how high-speed broadband would bring better economic opportunities and help improve living standards. “Millions of Americans lack basic broadband connectivity – particularly, rural and tribal communities. Making spectrum available to tribal nations brings these communities into the next generation of connectivity and allows them to take advantage of the benefits of broadband. By enabling access to 4G and 5G through Nokia’s technology and partnership with NewCore, each tribe can improve their quality of life with new economic opportunities, and educational and health care access,” he said.
Albert Kangas, COO and General Manager, NewCore Wireless, seconded Raghav: “In rural communities across the U.S., mobile coverage is already scarce – with few small carriers left dedicated to serving those regions specifically. Many of the Native American reservations tend to be in rural areas of the U.S. What we hope to bring to these communities through our work with Nokia is a renewed sense of control over their future, by building out next generation broadband solutions to expand internet and mobile access for the most remote areas of North America.”
A brighter future
The prospect of finally gaining access to broadband has been widely welcomed by the reservations as the demand for telehealth, distance learning and trading in goods and services over the internet spiked due to the pandemic.
“It’s going to bring great joy to our customers. It might allow us to attract new business and even former customers who had left over capacity issues. Nokia and NewCore have offered a more better-quality product to our membership at a lower cost. For us, it's more about economics than actual connectivity,” said McLaughlin.
One of the biggest challenges faced by the tribes was funding. Erecting cellular towers and putting fiber-optic cables into the ground require the investment of large sums of money, a near-impossible task for people relying on farming and modest entrepreneurial ventures.
The U.S. government’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, was specifically aimed to manage the public health and economic impacts of the pandemic.
Funds allocated to the tribes, like the Cheyenne and Arapaho, played a major role in helping to build the required infrastructure.
The prospect of finally gaining access to broadband has been widely welcomed by the reservations.
Reggie Wassana, Governor for the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes said: “The CARES Act that provided money directly to the tribes made it possible for us to establish three separate cellular towers in the region. It has not only allowed us to provide internet to the tribal emergency programs, but also to the tribal citizens within our service area.”
As the tribes look forward to better and faster connectivity, they are preparing themselves to make full use of the educational, health and economic opportunities presented by the new broadband. Once up and running, it will inject a new lease of life into the communities. Students can scour for new avenues to support e-learning, learn the latest skills while businesses can engage with clients online and health professionals gain access to timely clinical advice and intervention.
The realization of long-held aspirations was perhaps best summed up by John Pretty Bear, Councilman for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s Cannonball District. “This initiative with Nokia and NewCore will go a long way to leveling the technology playing field for the people of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. All members of our community, including our elders whom we pride ourselves in helping, will benefit from more affordable and accessible connectivity.
“This is critical for the well-being of our people, especially during the pandemic where information about mass testing or vaccinations needs to be shared in real time. From online schooling, to telehealth, to affordable mobility and cellular phones, we look forward to improving the quality of life for everyone in our community,” he added.
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