The Havasupai Tribe and MuralNet crack the code to spectrum access to bridge the last mile in Indian Country
By Mariel Triggs, MuralNet CEO
Recently, The Havasupai Tribe’s fight and win for a permanent Educational Broadband Service (EBS) spectrum license caught the attention of the US media. The Tribe’s main residence is in Supai, AZ, at the base of the Grand Canyon, accessible only by helicopter or 8-mile horse trail. With the temporary authorization they received last year to use spectrum with the help of MuralNet (a Silicon Valley nonprofit), Niles Radio Communications (a local Internet service provider), and Northern Arizona University, the Havasupai built their own community network, bringing broadband speeds to Head Start and to teachers and students at home. Teenagers now have the ability to attend real-time high school classes without leaving the Canyon; Head Start educators are taking online courses, keeping their school in compliance with national standards; and teachers are continuing their education to obtain specialized degrees. Now that the Havasupai have a permanent license, plans for a remote charter high school can go forward and more continuing education and distance learning programs can be rolled out to the community.
The method of building The Havasupai’s high speed Internet network is replicable. MuralNet had already assembled a kit using low-cost networking equipment that is then re-programmed with open-source software to operate and manage an LTE network. They consulted with Dr. Chad S. Hamill, Vice President for Native American Initiatives at Northern Arizona University, who was instrumental in assisting MuralNet in building key relationships with tribal communities, including the Havasupai. Councilwoman Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss of The Havasupai Tribal Council vetted the partners, forged coalition amongst the Tribe and connected projects that could utilize Internet access immediately. Kelly Cullen of Niles Radio was already providing 30 mbps of backhaul for free to the Havasupai nation and enthusiastically volunteered his company’s time and expertise. The actual deployment of infrastructure took only a few people working half a day and $15k of equipment. The legal hurdles to spectrum, however, took a year and a half to overcome, requiring considerable time and legal fees.
The Havasupai’s fight for spectrum is not over. They have rights to use 20.5 MHz of non-contiguous bandwidth, allowing for their current educational programming. If they had access to all of the available 126.5 MHz of EBS spectrum, however, they could initiate telemedicine and tele-counseling services, emergency preparedness infrastructure, and economic development. They are not alone. About 2/3 of federally-recognized American Indian/Alaska Native and Hawaiian homelands have unclaimed EBS spectrum. The Federal Communications Commission is expected to change the rules regarding the licensing of EBS spectrum in the United States, which will most likely end with auctions that privilege large commercial interests. Market forces have not bridged the rural digital divide on a massive scale but community networks are making a dent. Native nations should have first priority in claiming this spectrum over their lands. If the FCC grants this, they will be ready to deploy their own networks in order to meet their people’s needs in ways that match their values, their vision of the future, and their way of life.