Robin Kennedy Plans to Bridge the Rural Digital Divide on the Spokane Reservation

Back in 2001, Senator John McCoy (D-Washington), a Tulalip Tribal member, hired Robin Kennedy to participate on an approximately 25-member team tasked with bringing advanced technology to the Tulalip Tribes. The unique partnership included representatives of the University of Washington at Bothell, Everett Community College, and the Tulalip Tribes of Washington. Initially called Tulalip Technology Leap, the department was later renamed Tulalip Data Services. Prior to Tulalip Data Services, Kennedy, a Native American Gulf War Veteran, served 20 years in the U.S. Navy in the telecommunications field.

“Within a couple years [of the Tulalip project], I had started thinking it would be great if we could do something like this for the Spokane Tribe,” said Kennedy, a Spokane Tribal member.

The idea percolated in her mind throughout the nearly 14 years she served as an information technology employee and business analyst for the Tulalip Data Services department.

Finally, in late 2013, Kennedy set out to create a solution on how the Spokane Tribe of Indians could achieve access to advanced telecom services in the rural locations of the Spokane Indian Reservation for Tribal government, businesses and residents. She met with the Tribal Council to discuss bringing advanced Internet and phone services to the reservation.

Robin Kennedy (Courtesy Kennedy)

“My initial idea was to build a technology center for our tribe,” which remains a goal, said Kennedy. She was initially hired as the Technology Advancement Officer for the Spokane Tribe in 2015, a position that lead to her formation of the Spokane Tribe Telecommunications Exchange, LLC, in 2016.

Creating the Spokane Tribe Telecom Exchange (STTX), LLC, did not come without sacrifices for Robin Kennedy and her husband. The pair quit their careers, sold their home, and relocated from Marysville, Washington, to Spokane, Washington.

Currently, the Spokane Reservation lacks sufficient telecom services for government departments, businesses and residential homes. “On the reservation, there is some Internet and previous technology phone systems that I am looking to replace with Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP),” Kennedy said. Kennedy must first increase Internet connectivity to introduce VoIP services. “Using VoIP is much clearer, less equipment, and more cost-effective,” Kennedy explained.

Kennedy and her Network Engineer and Telecom Technician have been strategizing current and future needs of implementing infrastructure to allow STTX to increase Internet penetration. However the Spokane Reservation faces significant barriers to obtaining telecom infrastructure.

 One of our barriers is terrain. We are remote; approximately 40 to 50 miles from the City of Spokane. That, in itself, is a challenge. Then, there is [the barrier of] funding for infrastructure,” Kennedy said. “I have applied for grants, however have not received any. I was able to use some government funding, which is how I was able to implement some [initial] infrastructure.”

 A microwave system currently allows STTX to provide some Internet in particular areas of the Reservation. “It’s a limited system; it needs expansion; towers need to be taller, in addition to fiber-optics would increase access to telecom services. We need funding for taller towers and fiber-optics on the reservation. That’s basically where we’re at,” Kennedy said. 

Greater Internet connectivity would support education, business development, economic development, healthcare and emergency communications for the Spokane Tribe, Kennedy said. She particularly stressed the benefits of increased Internet access for education, healthcare and emergency communications.

“If you can imagine not having access to Internet in the 21st Century, it’s very difficult. In terms of education, with Internet, people will be able to take online college courses from home. They wouldn’t have to commute the 40-50 miles one way to attend college. People could own their own businesses and work from home. Children could do their homework in their home environment,” Kennedy explained.

Ultimately, the Spokane Tribe owning its own telecommunications company—providing Internet and phone services—aligns with the Tribes’ vision of Tribal sovereignty. “We eventually will not have to rely on other telecommunications companies to provide the services that we [STTX] can provide ourselves,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy also aspires to encourage youth to pursue careers in the telecommunications and information technology industries. “Once we [STTX] start expanding, and even prior to that, I would like to inform tribal members about experience, education and career paths leading to STTX,” she said. “Many tribes lack job opportunities in the telecommunications and information technology field. However it takes time to get the experience, education and training. The earlier tribal members start acquiring the experience, education and skills for these jobs, the better.”