Char-Koosta News: Broadband expansion on the Flathead Reservation gets big boost from the FCC

by Bernie Azure

The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) recently announced the granting of spectrum licenses to 154 Tribal Nations, including seven of the eight in Montana, through its Rural Tribal Priority Window. The spectrum licenses reserve a 2.5 GHz (gigahertz) radio frequency band to provide broadband services to chronically underserved Indian Reservations – many are located in rural areas.

“This is a major step forward in our efforts to close the digital divide on Tribal lands. Few communities face the digital connectivity challenges faced by rural Tribes,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “By prioritizing Tribal access to this mid-band spectrum, we are ensuring that Tribes can quickly access spectrum to connect their schools, homes, hospitals, and businesses.”

High-speed Internet access, or broadband, is critical to economic opportunity, job creation, education and civic engagement. In urban areas, 97 percent of Americans have access to high-speed fixed service. In rural areas, that number falls to 65 percent. On Tribal lands, barely 60 percent have access. In total nearly 30 million Americans cannot access the benefits of the digital age.

Senator Jon Tester (D-Mont.) has long advocated for the need of fast internet services for underserved Tribal Nations.

“Between distanced learning, telehealth, and working from home, the coronavirus pandemic has made access to reliable, high-speed broadband more critical than ever before, especially in Indian Country,” Tester said. “For years, I’ve been pushing the FCC to work with Montana Tribes and grant them the logical next step in their push for digital sovereignty – ownership over their own spectrum. That’s why I’m proud to announce that the FCC approved applications from every Montana Tribe that applied for spectrum ownership, which will increase connectivity across our state’s Tribal communities and increase access to critical health and education services.”

The Flathead Nation will use CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) funds for the building of infrastructure needed to establish a broadband network.

One of the most important components of the infrastructure are communication towers. To that end, S&K Technologies, Inc., and its subsidiary International Towers, LLC, completed construction of four towers on the Flathead Reservation this week.

S&K Technologies, Inc. was hired under contract by the CSKT Information Technology Department to construct communication towers at strategic locations on the Flathead Reservation.

The communication towers are located in Boulder on the east side of Flathead Lake; Jette on the west side of Flathead Lake; Pistol Creek between St. Ignatius and Arlee; and Oliver between Charlo and Hot Springs. The towers include a “shelter” building that houses the electrical system that includes a backup generator, and other associated operational equipment.

“The four towers constructed on the reservation were in areas where their positions offer the most coverage,” said Chad Cottet, CEO S&K Technologies Inc., adding that the tower construction completes its involvement in the effort other than maintenance. “That’s our part in the picture.”

“We are filling in dead spots from the high spots on the reservation,” said Doug Gratzer, President of International Towers, LLC, adding that the towers were built on high spots on the reservation in order to have a line-of-sight connection to other towers in the area. “This has been a great project that is beneficial to the CSKT and International Towers. Everyone has been very helpful here; the crews have been very good. We used quite a bit of local participation through contracts. The local support has been fantastic. We will continue to be of assistance to the Tribes in the operation of the towers.”

Gratzer said the tower construction projects gives its owners, the CSKT tribal membership, an example of what kind of work International Towers does. The faster broadband speeds that will allow for utilization of 5G networking will not only benefit the tribal community but the non-Indian community as well including cell phone users, first responders and internet users including educational, medical and governmental entities.

The spectrum licenses were issued to the Blackfeet Nation, Crow Nation, Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Nation, Rocky Boys Chippewa Cree Nation, Flathead Nation, Fort Belknap Assiniboine and Gros Ventre Nation, and Northern Cheyenne Nation. The recently federally recognized Little Shell Nation does not, yet, have a reservation land base upon which they could centrally utilize the broadband services.

The CSKT through S&K Technologies Inc. purchased International Towers, LLC in January 2019.

International Towers, LLC (ITL) is a commercial and government contractor that provides turn-key design-build construction and infrastructure solutions for Government, cellular, and broadcast customers. Its headquarters is on the Flathead Indian Reservation, and its main offices are in Tucson, Arizona.