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Of the 29 federally-recognised Native American reservations in Washington State, the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe is one of the most remote. Located in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains two hours north-east of Seattle, the tiny reservation consists of around 75 residents living in 20 homes arranged in a loop, an ideal formation for powwows. Up Until recently, the only methods of telecommunications were telephone and handheld radio. But now, a high-speed wireless internet service is enabling residents to communicate more easily with the outside world.

The Sauk-Suiattle Tribe’s Wi-Fi service was launched in April 2004 through a partnership between Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians Economic Development Council (ATNI-EDC,) a non-profit organisation that helps Native American tribes leverage technology to stimulate economic growth; Verizon Avenue, a subsidiary of US telecoms company Verizon; and The Bill and Melinda Gate Foundation.

Verizon Avenue provided the modified Wi-Fi network, which consists of a T1 line and roof-mounted antennas with in-built radios. ATNI-EDC provided training to residents. Funding for the project came from The Gates Foundation, which donated $385,000 to ATNI-EDC in 2002 for Native American technology access projects within Washington State. The partners also provided new Dell computers to each household.

The tribe was chosen as a model for Wi-Fi deployment for its remoteness, economic need, and small size. According to Randell Harris, ATNI-EDC chief technology officer, Wi-Fi makes economic as well as practical sense. “A typical ethernet cable connection reaches less than 400 feet and would be too costly to implement, and other options such as DirecTV and satellite are too expensive or slow,” says Mr Harris. “Wireless is not only the most cost-efficient way of providing internet access to the tribe, but has a radius of two and a half miles or more.”

The tribe has developed a means-based sliding scale fee structure for the service. Fees are $30 per month, including hardware, software, service and maintenance costs. Tribe members are using the technology in a variety of ways.

Microsoft employee John Pugh, who faces a five-hour daily commute, is using the Wi-Fi network to telecommute several days a week. “The technology enables me to spend more time with my family,” said Mr Pugh.

A tribal elder is using her e-mail account to communicate with her grandchildren. Another elder is selling her hand-woven baskets via the internet.

“Native American communities have high poverty rates,” Ken Thompson, Gates Foundation programme officer says. “Technology can have an enormous economic impact on rural areas.”

Bringing internet access to Native American reservations has not long been an attractive proposition for established telecoms providers. The low number of subscribers per mile makes recouping costs difficult. But a provision in the 1996 Telecommunications Act giving federal subsidies to companies that provide services to rural areas has changed the situation.

Verizon Avenue considers wiring remote locations as more than a philanthropic endeavour. “The project combines providing technology to under-served communities with expanding Verizon Avenue’s footprint into places we couldn’t go before,” says Kelley Dunne, executive vice president, Verizon Avenue.

“The tribe’s very remote location means that Verizon is partnering with residents to provide on-site technical support,” says Mr Dunne. Locals are calling for more training, but with the Gates grant coming to an end, ATNI-EDC is looking for additional funding to help tribe members get the most from their new technology.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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