This is Part 1 of a two-part series.
Native Business Magazine recently spoke with Andrew Metcalfe, founder, CEO, president and chairman of Native Network, about Native Network’s role in the Microsoft Airband Initiative, which aims to extend broadband access to 2 million people in unserved areas of rural America by July 4, 2022. Through the partnership, Native Network will deliver broadband to rural communities in Washington and Montana—including to the Flathead Reservation in Montana as well as the Lummi Nation and Swinomish Tribe in Washington.
“Broadband is the electricity of the 21st century and is critical for farmers, small-business owners, health-care practitioners, educators and students to thrive in today’s digital economy,” said Microsoft President Brad Smith. “The partnership with Native Network will help close the digital divide in rural Montana and Washington, bringing access to approximately 73,500 people within and around the tribal communities.”
Native Network will provide the affordable, fixed-wireless broadband internet access, particularly through TV White Spaces. Metcalfe underscored that TV white space is just one component of an eco-system of technologies to access wireless internet.
“TV white space is that white space between TV channels. In rural markets, there are a lot of TV channels that go unused, so the idea is to use those bands to wirelessly connect,” Metcalfe told Native Business Magazine. “The good thing about those bands is that they are very low frequency and are able to better connect in rural markets where there might be trees or terrain issues that prevent a standard system.”
Native Network originally approached Microsoft about partnering and proposed 14 Native American reservations that could benefit from this technology and support. Ultimately, Microsoft and Native Network selected three reservations that had the greatest opportunity for short-term success—the Flathead Reservation in Montana, and the Lummi Nation and Swinomish Tribe in Washington. “We’ll continue to roll out the program to other tribes as we meet milestones and vet the projects,” Metcalfe said.
Microsoft, Native Network and the participating Tribe all match funds to complete the broadband deployment and delivery. Native Network will build the broadband network by constructing towers and connecting wireless.
“It’s a six-year program. At the end, the tribes will own the infrastructure. Native Network is the provider of all cell services,” Metcalfe explained. “When we return Microsoft’s investment—which is effectively a zero-cost loan and based off of a revenue sharing agreement—they reinvest that money back into other markets,” and ideally tribal markets. “We will continue to look for markets that make sense for Microsoft and Native Network jointly,” Metcalfe said.
The broadband infrastructure constructed by Native Network can also serve areas surrounding the reservation, creating opportunity for new revenue streams for tribal telecommunications companies.
Native Network formed in 2015 to work exclusively on telecom and technology projects in Indian Country with a recent emphasis on distribution networks for internet access in unserved and underserved markets.
“Native Network does much more than broadband systems. We’re helping tribes develop telecommunications companies, interconnecting tribes with fiber optic networks,” Metcalfe said. “It’s about reaching out to, helping, and connecting as many tribes as possible. We call that 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. There are 572 federally recognized tribes at the moment, and so we’re contacting and working with as many as possible. We’re focused on the Pacific Northwest, because there are a lot of tribes here and a lot of need,” he said, adding that Native Network counts many tribal clients in Oklahoma as well.
Currently a private company, Native Network is actively seeking tribal investment to help the business grow faster. “We’re working as fast as we can with what we’ve got,” Metcalfe said.