Southeast Alaska’s regional Tribal government will pilot its new broadband internet program in Wrangell, which it says will, eventually, be available to everyone on the island.
Last year, the Federal Communications Commission opened up a special program to allow rural Tribes to secure broadband licenses to improve connectivity. Hundreds of Tribes applied, more than a third in Alaska.
The Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska announced on December 17 that it got its license. The FCC has granted the regional Tribe exclusive use of a mid-band broadband spectrum in a number of Southeast Alaska communities.
Chris Cropley, one of the Tribal council’s network architects, says the license is for the 2.5 gigahertz spectrum: the same tech used by cell phone LTE networks.
“We’re starting in Wrangell,” Cropley said. “It’s perfect – it’s the Goldilocks, as they say. It’s got everything going for it. We’ve got a lot of people there, relatively, we own the 2.5 [GHz spectrum] there, and we have funding for it.”
The Tribe is calling its broadband service Tidal Network. It will just be home internet, not mobile data service. But it will still need to build its own towers, so that wireless internet can be broadcast directly to homes and businesses that don’t already have reliable internet access.
“Anywhere that’s already served, we’re not interested in serving,” Cropley said. “So if you have a cable modem to your house, fiber optic to your house, if you’ve got good service to your home or are downtown, we’re not really super interested in replacing that with something else. We’re not looking to displace GCI or ACS or AT&T or anybody.”
Wrangell is ideal because there are people with spotty service, but it’s not such a remote community that the Tribe would struggle to get people and equipment to town. Cropley said residents living towards the southern end of the 14-mile stretch of Zimovia Highway would be good candidates for Tidal Network.
Once the service is in place, Tlingit & Haida will be required to “defend” it – meaning they have to offer internet service to 80% of the area’s population within the first two years of holding the license, and full-coverage after five years. But that doesn’t mean people have to take the new provider up on the offer.
Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska began working on getting its license back in 2019. And federal pandemic relief it has received since will help pay for the project.
“We are buying two what we call COWs – cell on wheels,” he said. “They are towers on a trailer with a generator and a little cabinet underneath, and they extend out. We’re able to stand them up, and they have radio microwave on them and they accept fiber optic and we’re able to wire them up or wireless them and begin to provide service on those towers.”
Permanent towers can cost $500,000 to $600,000 each and come with miles of red tape.
The pieces are already in place to get started now, though. Cropley said he has a multi-million dollar budget headed to Wrangell for the pilot broadband project, but declined to say precisely how much.
Once the details are worked out, Tidal Network will operate in Wrangell as a subscription service with different plans, like any other internet provider. The goal is to provide the best possible internet at the lowest possible price.
“We’re just looking at finding the most people with the least internet or no internet, ideally, and providing them with internet where they didn’t have before, where they had to use a satellite,” he said.
The pilot project in Wrangell is just that: a test. It’ll help flesh out the program – from the tech itself to collaboration with other vendors, policies and provide training to Tidal Network employees.
The process will take time, and investment.
“There’s a reason that somebody isn’t already doing this, right?” Cropley said. “There’s no gold mine at the end of the road here. It is a service.”
Cropley says they hope to have the Tidal Network up and running by spring 2022. And after piloting the program in Wrangell, the service could expand to more than 20 other Southeast Alaska communities in the coming years.