Imagine a higher-than-average standard for broadband connectivity on Indian land. Andrew Metcalfe wants to close the digital divide. (Courtesy Native Network)
This article originally appeared in the March 2019 “Infrastructure” print edition of Native Business Magazine.
Think of the current situation in Indian Country, particularly rural or financially strapped reservations, living on the wrong side of the “digital divide.”
Now imagine that digital divide closed. Imagine reservations with the same sort of Internet access you’d find in an affluent suburb.
Now imagine a higher-than-average standard for broadband connectivity on Indian land. Imagine the infrastructure to host data centers or call centers for the country’s biggest dot-com businesses.
Finally, imagine Tribes all around the country with this capability, connected to each other in their own secure network, working in coordination to provide digital services to consumers across the country, as well as to Indian Country. Tribes sharing their strengths, specializing, bundling services and sharing in prosperity.
This is the vision of Andrew Metcalfe, the founder, CEO and president of Native Network.
“I would connect the Tribes together with fiber optic networks, which are the core basis for being able to do business between each other,” he says.
“Think about a data center — one data center doesn’t do you any good, because if a natural disaster happens, your data’s gone. You have to have multiple Tribes with data centers that are linked together, so the Tribes can share resources. One of the ways the Tribes can work together is to create a platform, so that the folks using the data centers can feel comfortable that the protections and the protocols and systems are the same — the same experience from one reservation’s data center to another.”
Connecting Tribes via fiber optic cable requires physical assets and implementation — namely, the cable itself. But it’s not as daunting as it sounds, in many cases, particularly with Native Network on the job. “There’s a significant amount of fiber around the U.S.,” Metcalfe explains, “and it usually goes within 10 to 30 miles of any particular Tribe. For some Tribes, it goes right across their land, and they don’t even know it. So it’s a matter of getting access to that fiber … if that’s the superhighway, Tribes need to build their off-ramp. So as a company, we help the Tribes identify where all those services are in proximity to their reservations, and then help them determine what it would take — money, time, engineering — to construct those services and get connected to that backbone.”
A reservation can be a very appealing venue for a large company — there’s a willing workforce, there may be government incentives or tax benefits for basing some operations there — but the sticking point is invariably infrastructure. “Without infrastructure, it’s very difficult to worry about anything but yourself,” Metcalfe says.
“But when you start to think, If I have the infrastructure, now I can connect to another Tribe that has the infrastructure — what can we do together to strengthen ourselves? So my vision is to connect as many of the 573 federally recognized Tribes with a fiber optic network, creating a national footprint of connected Tribes.”
While this connectivity has outward-facing potential, by empowering entrepreneurs and small businesses, and attracting data centers for large companies, it also promises strengthening and streamlining in Indian Country. The Indian Health Service is a prime example — “Maybe one Tribe’s got a hospital and the other one doesn’t,” Metcalfe says, suggesting virtual medical consultation for checkups or walk-in care that might not justify driving hours to the IHS hospital. Casino operations are another area in which many Tribes are involved, separately, that could benefit from a secure, Native-only network — imagine a national lottery, run by casinos, that takes place over a gaming-industry network.
And then there’s trade among Tribes that have specialties or resources. “Say one Tribe is a fishing Tribe, and another has mining or timber resources, how do they trade with one another?” Metcalfe asks. “We’d be creating a platform for Tribes to trade services. And those could be virtual services — for example a call center. Not every Tribe needs a call center, but there needs to be a handful of them out there. So a Tribe that has an infrastructure in broadband services, they may not want to provide all the support 24/7. So they would potentially link to another Tribe and utilize their call center services. And the Tribe that has the call center services may buy their Internet or voice product from Tribe C. So by having that connectivity and structure set up, that enables that whole economic development flow.”
The social benefits are tantalizing as well — it’s hard to keep young people on the reservation when they feel there aren’t any job opportunities. The flight from Tribal lands for cities can fracture families and erode Native communities, something Metcalfe witnessed growing up on the Colville Indian Reservation.
“I’m very interested in creating the physical infrastructure of data centers and call centers.” Metcalfe says, “Not everyone wants to work virtually. Some people want to have a job where they go to work every day, a job that’s technical, it’s needed. And it’s a job where they earn a living wage, a family wage job. That’s an aspect that can bring people back to the reservation.”