By Councilwoman Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss of the Havasupai Tribe and Mariel Triggs, CEO of MuralNet
Two years ago, The Havasupai Tribe, MuralNet and Niles Radio Communications partnered to build an LTE fixed wireless community network that could address the homework gap in Supai, Arizona, USA. The idea was that critical infrastructure could be erected in half a day at a cost of $15k and demonstrate success. After a year of advocacy, alongside several trips to Capitol Hill and Federal Communications Commision (FCC) regarding access to Educational Broadband Service (EBS) spectrum, the current network can connect around 40 homes to high speed Internet. The residents of Supai quickly outgrew this infrastructure and demonstrated a need for more backhaul. Now it is time to increase capacity, improve signal coverage, and develop income streams to make the Havasupai Tribe’s first network financially sustainable. They also want to alert other tribal nations that they too can claim EBS spectrum over their own lands and use this vital resource to help connect their people.
Supai is the most isolated community in the lower 48 states. It is the home of the Havasupai, the guardians of the Grand Canyon, and is surrounded by mile-high red rock cliffs and mesa tops. The village and canyon are important links to their traditional way of life. The only way in or out of Supai is an 8-mile hike by foot, by horse, or via helicopter, which typically runs two to four times a week depending on the time of year. All packages sent through the United States Postal Service are still delivered by mule trail mail. And, even after scaling the canyon, the nearest two towns are 67 miles away by car. Approximately 390 people live in Supai, and when the children return home from boarding school the number increases to 423.
In 2017, the Havasupai Tribe met with MuralNet (a nonprofit working with Native nations to bring Internet equity to their communities), Northern Arizona University, and Niles Radio Communications (a local communications service provider) about bridging Supai’s Internet needs. That year, the Tribal Council passed a resolution to collaborate and build an LTE high-speed Internet network. LTE equipment installation took half a day at a cost of $15K USD. However, it took four months, two lawyers and over $20k USD to get special temporary authorization to use the A Channels of EBS spectrum. Within five days of the FCC granting a license, the Havasupai made their first high-speed Internet connection. Sixteen CPEs were permanently installed. Educators can now take online courses ensuring that the Early Head Start follows national standards. K-8 teachers can continue their master’s programs online and finish their higher degrees in special education. Students can study for the SAT and high school equivalency exams at home, with the connection, adults are learning to become notaries and how to do taxes, sparking the local economy. This was a historical year for Havasupai, 2018 was the first year this kind of online learning was achievable.
As a result, the network was expanded; now 40 homes can be connected and new CPEs were available to checkout for educational purposes from the tribal offices.The last recipients of the CPEs were a group of seven students who had a goal to complete the second round of General Educational Development (GED) courses provided by Coconino Community College located in Flagstaff, Arizona.The first time a class of Supai students logged in to learn at their own pace was also in 2018, bringing students and professors together, despite distance!
Julie Baumgartner from Coconino Community College was teaching a math class in Flagstaff Arizona,168 miles from the GED students. Once students successfully signed on, they could see the instructor on their computer screens, ask her questions, and meet their fellow students in Flagstaff. The Supai students watched the teacher working out the problems on the board, and they could interact, giving the teacher answers to the solved problem in real time. This was a historical moment for Supai because it was the first online, live, interactive class that had happened in the village.
Last May, the Havasupai Tribe was granted a permanent license for EBS A channels, the same channels that they were using to build their pilot network. Citing the success of the Havasupai Tribe’s network deployment and the positive impact on their community, the FCC released an order that Rural Native Tribes or their tribally-owned service provider can claim all unlicensed EBS spectrum (channels A, B, C, D, & G) over their tribal lands during an initial tribal priority window. Immediately following this tribal priority window will be an overlay auction of remaining EBS spectrum across the country. There will be strict buildout requirements, thus encouraging the use of the spectrum. Hundreds of rural Native tribal communities have EBS spectrum they can claim, but the tribal priority window is only 60 days long, and rules governing the process have yet to be released.
PCI is generously funding the creation of educational materials so that tribal councils can learn about the value of spectrum, how EBS spectrum is ideal for building a starter network on rural lands, what the developing policies governing spectrum use are, and the value of spectrum as a resource. A map is available at muralnet.org/spectrum of current EBS licenses so that tribal communities can see if they have spectrum available over their lands.
“Sometimes it is the smallest community that can see the greatest gain, in a short amount of time, and that is our story. This is OUR little story, the story about the most isolated tribe in the lower 48 states, having no broadband connection whatsoever, until 2018. The educational, economical, telehealth, and emergency communications afforded to the outside world were not our reality. The success of this small pilot project has brought so much benefit to the few people able to utilize it, that now it has become an answer to help the community as a whole.
This has the chance to become our BIG story.
We strongly encourage other tribes to take control of the EBS spectrum available on your rural tribal reservation.”
-Councilwoman Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss, Havasupai Tribe
PCI donated funds to improve signal quality for the expanded network over Supai. The Havasupai Tribe’s network also needs funds to increase backhaul for telemedicine, an online high school, emergency communications, and to extend signal to tourists at the campgrounds to create an income stream for financial sustainability. The Havasupai Tribe’s network is a model of how a community can go from no connection, to a starter community network, and then grow to become a full-fledged sustainable service provider for their community and visitors. Other tribal communities could do the same and millions of people could be connected. If you want to help in these efforts, donate to The Havasupai Tribe’s Fund or contact MuralNet to find volunteer opportunities or give in-kind donations.
The Havasupai Tribe has demonstrated that with resources and access, we can build the community we are proud of and help others do the same. Please donate today through 12/31/2019, and share our story.