This is Part 2 of a two-part series.
Andrew Metcalfe, founder and CEO of Native Network, understands rural markets. He grew up on the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington State, and his grandmother and parents are part of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians of North Dakota.
If there’s one thing Metcalfe is passionate about, it’s ensuring rural tribes are technologically equipped to stay competitive and grow thriving economies.
“There is a huge opportunity for the tribes to deploy and develop their own systems, to build their own capacity in order to engage in the new technology world. My biggest fear is that they’re going to get left behind, because things are changing so fast. Without a high-speed Internet connection and the ability to leverage those services, they will miss so many opportunities,” Metcalfe told Native Business Magazine.
That awareness and calling to drive solutions for Indian Country led Metcalfe to form Native Network in 2015. But first, he had to lay the foundation for his career.
After graduating with his electrical engineering degree from Southern Illinois and completing four years in the Marine Corps, Metcalfe worked for seven years at Boeing in Seattle. That’s when he transitioned back into rural markets. From 1993 to 1999 as chief engineer and architect of network infrastructure, Metcalfe grew the Eastern Washington-based Cellular One franchise to 35 sites in the most rural areas of the state. The network was instrumental in positioning the sale of the company to Triton Cellular Partners in 1998 for $50.0 million. “It is now the AT&T Network in eastern Washington,” Metcalfe noted. In 1999, he founded Northwest Telephone, Inc., a Pacific Northwest regional carrier that provided rural connectivity to the nation’s major wireless and cable companies, such as Verizon, AT&T and Sprint, among a host of major corporations.
“I successfully sold that business in 2008 and then did about four to five years of consulting for the major telecommunications companies,” Metcalfe told Native Business Magazine.
At the end of his consulting career, he moved back home and began assisting the Tulalip Tribes with expanding their wireless systems already in place. “They were providing services but they were struggling with the model,” Metcalfe said.
He helped the tribe certify a telephone company and integrate with the Frontier Network and CenturyLink. That ultimately inspired the formation of Native Network in 2015.
“We had the vision that we should be connecting the tribes together, so they can leverage the things that they do, like casinos, data centers, and content that they could share with others. We focused on building fiber optic networks to connect them. In my opinion, anything that can be done off the reservation can be done on the reservation. That was the premise that we went with, and we thought about what companies we could form or help form that use broadband or Internet technologies, so they create jobs and can further the socio-economic welfare on the reservation. We’ve been doing that, and it has been going great,” Metcalfe said.
While Native Network’s work is concentrated in the Northwest, it has built networks across the country. “It’s starting to expand rapidly,” Metcalfe said. “Our goal is to connect as many tribes together as possible so they can speak with one voice. As we’ve been talking to regulatory folks, we’ve explored the use of government funds to have as large an impact across as many tribes as possible.”
Today Native Network helps tribes develop telecommunications companies, interconnecting tribes with fiber optic networks. The company’s motto is Connect, Empower and Prosper. “Once they’re connected, it empowers tribes to control their own telecommunications services and products, and they will prosper from that,” Metcalfe said.
Of course, a big piece of the puzzle is raising the capital to lay these fiber optic networks and build telecommunications companies. Native Network provides the technical requirements for tribes to meet grant requirements, employing a process that Metcalfe calls “going thorough the building blocks”—essentially laying the foundation to create the regulatory infrastructure.
“A lot of our work is helping you get to a point where you are eligible for the grant,” said Metcalfe, acknowledging that tribes can apply for many smaller grants that can used for planning, feasibility studies and the like. Native Network advises tribes on the federal and state loans to apply for.
“Hopefully by combining several grant opportunities with low interest loans, we can get the basic building blocks in place to apply for the much bigger money. You’ve got Mobility Funds that the FCC is managing; you’ve got Rural Utility Services; you’ve got Universal Service Fund, which is building fiber in schools. Pulling all that stuff together for the tribes and showing them what’s available and how to get it is part of our work,” Metcalfe said.
Next steps for Native Network may involve bringing a grant writer in-house, Metcalfe added. Still a relatively new company, and a private company, Native Network is actively seeking tribal investment to help the business grow faster.
At the end of the day, Metcalfe is on a mission to connect tribes to opportunity. “My goal was to get tribes and nations technically competent to leverage the technologies to bring new opportunities [to tribal members reservation residents]—whether that’s bringing new jobs or revenue streams, interconnecting school libraries, or providing hospitals with state-of-the-art facilities,” he said. “With technology, all of that is possible if you have your core infrastructure and understand how to leverage those. The message that I am preaching is that all of this can be done and we can help you put the building blocks in place.”