Most people can connect to high-speed internet anytime, almost anywhere. It is part of our everyday routine and keeps society moving at a fast clip. But according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), more than 60 percent of Americans on tribal lands lack access to high-speed internet service, defined by the FCC as a download speed of 25 megabits per second.
Crystal Hottowe of the Makah Tribe in remote Neah Bay, Washington, knows this struggle all too well. For 10 years, she has worked for the tribe as a grant writer in the community planning and economic development department and is the technology chair. As such, she has been tasked with getting the Makah people up and running online at reliable, efficient speeds.
“Long gone are the days where high-speed Internet is a privilege for the few. It is now akin to running water and electricity,” says Hottowe, pointing out the benefits of fast internet speeds. “People can access health care resources and emergency services, search for jobs, take online courses and explore entertainment options. Without high-speed internet, we can’t be competitive as a tribe, in our tribal businesses or as individuals.”
In the last five years, Hottowe has made considerable headway in helping her tribe access the internet at faster speeds. In 2014, she oversaw the construction of a tribally-owned microwave wireless network, to which Makah tribal administration and schools are now connected. And in 2017, she worked with state policymakers to bring high-speed broadband internet service into homes on the reservation through CenturyLink, the telecommunications provider that serves Neah Bay.
However, the tribe still faces challenges. “Residential access is the real problem right now,” Hottowe explains that at least 25 percent of the 1,100 people living on the entire reservation do not receive internet services yet. “About 100 homes have no recourse, as the infrastructure that provides services to those homes have not been upgraded. The system is oversaturated and oversubscribed.”
The Makah grant writer, who also serves on the task force of the FCC’s Office of Native Affairs and Policy, spoke to Native Business Magazine about how far her tribe has come in being able to access the internet quickly and efficiently, and the work that still lies ahead.
NBM: How did you begin this high-speed internet journey for your tribe?
Hottowe: In 2013, we realized that we weren’t ready to apply for a USDA Community Connect Grant that would help fund broadband deployment into our rural tribal lands. So, the tribal council formed the technology team and named me chair. We partnered with the Cape Flattery School district because extremely slow internet speeds were not only an issue for our community, but also for our schools. Our download speeds were slower than dial-up.
Why did the tribe build its own wireless microwave network in 2014?
CenturyLink, the telecom provider in our area, was not responding to requests to upgrade broadband infrastructure on our reservation. Rather than wait around for them, we decided to flex our sovereign muscles. We thought, “We can do this for us, by us.” The wireless tribal network is for our tribal businesses and schools only. It distributes up to 500 Mbps throughout 21 administrative departments, a restaurant and two resorts.
Why did the tribe choose to build a wireless network over fiber optics?
We opted for the wireless system because it was easier to maintain, costs considerably less and is faster to deploy. Construction of a wireless microwave network takes six to eight weeks, versus 18 months to get fiber optics to Neah Bay. We did not offer the wireless system to tribal land residents because a feasibility study said that a Makah-owned ISP would be operating at a continuous loss. It suggested that tribal residents would be best served by broadband service through CenturyLink, which had just received funds to upgrade broadband infrastructure in Neah Bay.
What challenges are you facing in deploying high-speed broadband service for the entire tribe?
It’s always, always, always an issue of infrastructure. When CenturyLink brought fiber optics to our reservation, outlying areas to the south and west were not included in that upgrade. They are still on the old system, where your internet is cut off if you miss a payment and then you’re put on a waiting list to reinstate service. Our Hobuck Beach Resort is still operating on satellite internet service. They’re not subscribed through CenturyLink at all, and we’re working with the telecom company right now to have infrastructure upgraded in these missed areas.
Are you working with other tribes on this broadband issue?
We have approached these broadband issues with the telecom providers in solidarity. We have tribes along the coast of Washington and up onto the tip where we are, so we looked at providing a loop of services through there. But each tribe is at a different stage with building infrastructure, so it doesn’t really make a lot of sense for tribes to secure broadband service in tandem with one another. Each tribe needs to do their own work because that’s what sovereignty is about. But we do come together on policy issues.
What did you mean when you said your tribe would be “dead in the water” without broadband?
Our tribal lands are located on the very tip of Washington state, so we are in an earthquake- and tsunami-prone area without dependable infrastructure in place. If we were to experience a high-level emergency, such as an earthquake, we’re going to be on our own. My tribe recognizes that and has taken measures to ensure that we are going to be self-sufficient, but we still need reliable communication systems to give us access to the outside. We need redundancy─both fiber optics and wireless─because if one goes down, we can use the other.
What will it cost to provide high-speed internet access for your entire tribe?
If it is just a wireless microwave system, there are not a lot of overhead costs. But if it is a wired, fiber-optic service, where people are required to have routers or boxes, it is at least a few million dollars to start and then $500,000 to $800,000 to operate throughout the year.
What are you most proud of accomplishing in the last five years?
When the tribe constructed its wireless microwave network, it was a very proud moment. My daughter was in fourth grade at the time. Had we not come up with this solution, she and her classmates would have been bussed 60 miles roundtrip to take standardized tests. That really bothered me. After we implemented the wireless network, her class made a video to thank our tech team. It showed how slow internet speeds were impeding learning. Then it showed how they are now able to get information more quickly. I get tears in my eyes every time I watch it. The second proudest moment was in 2017 at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new broadband service for tribal residents. We had worked closely with Sen. Maria Cantwell on the initiative and she was there. It was amazing. And I am incredibly proud of my eight-member team for their hard work and for encouraging me to move forward with the high-speed internet initiative.