Missoulian: Into the future: COVID relief upgrades internet for Blackfeet

by Rob Chaney

BROWNING — To sell crafts based on her historic tribal culture, Lola Wippert would appreciate the modern technological world getting its act together.

Wippert makes handmade ribbon shirts and jewelry to sell under her brand Iniskimauki Designs on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northwest Montana. The 1.5-million-acre area blankets foothills and prairie just east of the Rocky Mountains, or what the tribal elders call “the Backbone of the World.”

In July, Wippert set up shop at Browning Indian Days Festival, one of the biggest events on the reservation and a crucial economic opportunity for craft workers like herself. But as customers came by, her cell service faltered. The Square app on her iPhone failed to accept the credit cards she swiped through the plug-in card reader. She had to enter the numbers manually.

That crushes her bottom line. Square charges her 2.5% of her profit with a direct card read. But it dings her 10% for purchases entered manually.

“The internet sucks here,” Wippert says.

That frustration radiates across the reservation. Residents of Babb often toggle between local and Canadian cell service providers, and occasionally drive to nearby hilltops, to find a strong enough signal for phone calls. Snapchat users in neighboring Duck Lake report waiting an hour or more for messages to load from friends in Browning, 25 miles away.

Rural and Native communities in the U.S. have long had lower rates of cellular and broadband connectivity than urban areas, where four out of every five Americans live. But those cities and suburbs occupy barely 3% of U.S. land — everywhere else, reliable internet service can still be hard to come by. For decades, places like the Blackfeet Reservation have made do with low bandwidth delivered through obsolete copper wires or simply gone without.

The COVID-19 pandemic underscored the problem as Native communities locked down and moved school and other essential daily activities online. But it also brought an unprecedented surge of relief funding to solve it. A federal broadband access initiative, backed by billions of pandemic-relief dollars, may finally help the Blackfeet and the rest of Indian Country install or upgrade their networks.

Now, for the first time, many Native communities face the opposite problem — figuring out how to spend the huge influx of cash they’ve received to catch up or even leap ahead of urban areas. Antiquated networks need to be upgraded. Vast distances mean technologies like 5G aren’t always good options. And costs are soaring. 

The question is, if you had a wide-open checkbook and a long-standing communications problem, what would your solution look like?

“It’s a third-world problem for tribes in a first-world country,” said Matthew Rantanen, technology and telecommunications co-chairman of the National Congress of American Indians. “We want now and tomorrow’s solution. We don’t want to be stuck with copper and DSL. We want fiber and the best possible wireless. With the right engineering and deployment, it’s totally feasible to serve that many homes.”

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Long before the coronavirus pandemic, Heart Butte Elementary School Principal Sandi Campbell knew many of her students’ families lacked functional internet. Blizzards routinely blow humps of snow 50 feet wide across the roads, isolating this village of 600 for days.

COVID imposed a different kind of isolation. The virus’ most likely first victims were elderly people who are also the last living speakers of traditional languages, keepers of oral histories, and pillars of social and spiritual organizations. One tribal leader likened any elder’s death to “a library burning down.”

The Blackfeet considered the threat so serious, in March 2020 they used their sovereign authority to shut their reservation to all non-essential visitors for a year. That meant closing half the entrances to Glacier National Park — eliminating the tourist economy that Wippert and many others depend on. The Blackfeet Tribal Business Council also ordered a reservation-wide lockdown with mask mandates.

The Blackfeet Reservation is home to 10,000 people and the population is 4.53 persons per square mile, almost twice the elbow room of Montana as a whole. Almost overnight, virtually all interaction across a landscape larger than the state of Delaware went virtual. Epidemiologically, the drastic tactics worked. But that isolation spotlighted the frailty of the local telecom structure.

A 2022 broadband availability map shows for the 658 served locations on the Blackfeet Reservation, 3,235 sites remain unserved. And many Blackfeet homes shelter multiple generations under one roof. On average, each home with internet access has 17 devices online at once — more than the existing network can handle.

“We have some families that have the highest amount of bandwidth they can get and the kids still don’t have what they really need,” says Campbell.

That could soon change thanks to the federal investments. Tucked into the 2020 CARES Act, which provided the first U.S. federal pandemic relief money, was $1 billion earmarked for broadband infrastructure improvements on Indian reservations.  

Then the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) of 2021 provided $20 billion specifically for Native American tribes’ COVID response; $520 million of that went to Montana’s eight reservations. ARPA also released $17 billion specifically for nationwide broadband improvements, available to any local government. While that wasn’t earmarked for tribal use, tribes could compete for funding along with cities, counties, and similar jurisdictions.

Next, the 2022 Infrastructure Act designated another $2 billion for a Tribal Broadband Connectivity Fund. Each of the 574 federally recognized tribes will receive a minimum of $500,000 for internet improvements, plus the opportunity to request more. By August 2022, dozens of tribal organizations had been approved for awards totaling $146 million. 

That included a major effort on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana. Nearly $25 million was needed to lay fiber-optic cable to 1,058 people, 25 businesses and 282 farms in the homeland of the Sioux and Assiniboine Tribes. That works out to roughly $18,000 per client served.

Finally, in September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released another $502 million in telecommunications project grants for rural and tribal communities nationwide. That third round of ReConnect program funding brought USDA’s internet assistance to $858 million, and the national overall federal internet investment to $65 billion.  

“Limited access to broadband networks is one of the top issues facing Montana’s rural communities — and one that was only worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic when folks were forced to rely on technology more than ever before,” Montana Sen. Jon Tester said when announcing $57 million in additional broadband grants for Montana reservations and rural communities in August. “These resources will not only make it easier for folks across the Treasure State to stay connected, but they’ll also help small businesses expand and create jobs, provide rural students with access to high quality education, and allow folks to access affordable telehealth services instead of driving hundreds of miles to the doctor.”

Between all these funding sources, the Blackfeet Tribe has received at least $33 million to upgrade its telecommunications infrastructure. Several initiatives are already underway. This summer, brand new rolls of black fiber optic cable have started to unfurl across the Blackfeet Reservation. Over the next five years, that fiber will extend to practically all the approximately 4,500 unserved homes, businesses, and institutions on the reservation.

One of the Blackfeet Tribe’s first moves was to spend $7.5 million from its CARES Act allocation to acquire a local telephone and internet exchange — a central hub in the town of Browning that all internet and cellular traffic on the reservation passes through — from a regional telecommunications cooperative. The co-op had already upgraded 22 of its 25 rural telephone exchanges in Montana to fiber-optic service. But the exchange serving the reservation had been left behind, and was still dependent on copper wires and 1980s-grade transfer switches.

With local control of the exchange and money available to upgrade it, the tribe’s next challenge was to figure out what technology would deliver the best service to residents.

Back to basics

Given their remoteness, the Blackfeet may seem like good candidates for experimental technologies designed to deliver internet service to rural areas. Over the years, tech companies and entrepreneurs have touted high-altitude balloonssolar-powered drones, and satellite constellations to do just that.

Unfortunately, broadband consultants dismiss most of those options. 5G, for example, provides amazing cellular data service but is often transmitted using higher-frequency radio waves that don’t travel as far as conventional cell signals — so you need street lights every 200 to 400 yards where you can place transmitters. The Blackfeet Reservation has so few streetlights that the tribe touts its night skies as a major tourist attraction.

 Download PDFThe 1.5-million acre Blackfeet Indian Reservation is connecting thousands of homes and businesses to broadband service for the first time.

High-orbit geosynchronous communications satellites operate 22,000 miles above Earth’s surface, resulting in more than 100 milliseconds of latancy — the gap between packets of data — too long for videoconferencing. Low-earth-orbit satellite systems like Starlink orbit closer at 200 to 500 miles up, but they currently don’t have sufficient coverage across the northern latitudes. They also suffer from peak-use congestion and weather interference. A partnership announced in August by Starlink and T-Mobile to bring cell-phone service to dead zones in North America only promised to support text messages by the end of 2023.

So while such satellites have been a life-saver for Ukraine as it tries to repel a Russian military invasion targeting its communications infrastructure, they can’t compete with fiber optic connections. Even at top speeds, the latency runs 30 to 70 milliseconds for microwave antennas. Fiber, in comparison, has a latency of 1 to 2 milliseconds. 

What would work for the Blackfeet is a fiber ring — a web of fiber-optic cables running underground to connect homes to each other and to the Browning exchange, which will then transfer that data to the rest of the world. Each cable, about as thick as your thumb, threads enough glass filament together to deliver up to 10 gigabits of data per second to and from 288 households. Right now, Blackfeet households receive at most around 25 megabits of data per second for downloads and 3 megabits for uploads. It takes at least 3 megabits just to stream a Netflix movie in high definition.

“For some parts of the reservation, we’re getting service for the first time,” says Mel Yawakie, a vice president for engineering with Turtle Island Communications, who is helping install the new fiber-optic links. “We’re not talking about bells and whistles. This is foundational.”

Still, though, the fiber won’t reach everyone. In some places, the company might opt to install cell towers to deliver internet service via microwaves to households at the ends of long dirt roads.

Those microwave antennas could deliver half-gigabit data speeds to multiple houses at once — not as good as fiber, but still better than what many on the reservation have now. And delivering internet service over the air is much cheaper — it costs about $1,000 per household, while laying fiber costs $40,000 to $80,000 per mile.

In many rural places, that cost tips the scales in favor of installing antennas over fiber.

“If we run a mile of cable for $60,000 to serve four customers, how long will it take to get [a] return on investment?” says Godfrey Enjady, president of the National Tribal Telecom Association, which recently held a major planning conference on use of federal broadband programs. “Most telecoms are shareholder-owned. They’re mandated to make money for the shareholders. There’s not enough profit for many tribal and even non-tribal areas to provide the broadband connectivity everybody needs.”

And all that work at the “last mile” — installing or upgrading the antennas and cables that link up homes and businesses — is only part of the challenge. The Blackfeet must still figure out how to connect this new infrastructure they install with the rest of the world. Small networks need a cost-effective way to feed their data into the international telecommunications backbone. That’s known as the “middle mile” problem.

Though the last mile often gets more political attention, the middle mile is key to bringing world-class telecommunications to rural America — and that’s not something the Blackfeet can build on their own.

“The middle-mile fiber is missing,” says Rantanen. “We did the math, got maps from carriers and tribes, worked with the GIS folks and anchor institutions — there’s about 8,000 missing miles in the Lower 48 states, 1,800 just in California. That’s a billion-dollar problem on its own just in the Lower 48.”

Work to be done

Since the rollout of the CARES Act in mid-2020, with its initial deadline to have billions of dollars spent by December 2021, tribes have scrambled to digest the opportunity. Blackfeet’s purchase of the Browning Telephone Exchange was one of the few things that could be completed in a timely fashion.

Unfortunately, not every tribe has been able to take advantage of these funds like Blackfeet has. “A lot of tribes didn’t apply for the money,” says Rantanen. “Some tribes are very advanced, and some have zero personnel. Or they have grant writers who don’t know how to think about technology trying to write tech grants.”

And now, costs are going up and inflation has also clawed into the equation.

Fiber projects now suffer from a global supply chain bottleneck. Sensing this, major communication players like AT&T and Verizon have been buying every pallet of cable they can find. That leaves small projects like Indian reservations waiting 60 weeks or more to fill orders. Many had to seek spending deadline waivers.

“The federal government appropriated over $60 billion for broadband, and the vendors know that,” says Mike Sheard, president of Siyeh Communications, the corporation created to oversee the new telecom exchange on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. “Prices are getting bid way up. The money won’t go as far as it did.”

While Rantanen says federal broadband access funding likely won’t be enough to dig fiber rings for every tribe, a clever planning department can lay a lot of cable while rebuilding a subsidized road or replacing an Infrastructure Act-supported water line.

Thanks to timing and persistence, the Blackfeet were able to get most of the fiber supplies they need. The brush with COVID-19 crystallized the value of a community’s internal connections — the links between elders, teachers, parents, children, and colleagues. Now they hope having a modern communications network will help ensure that same culture survives.  

Sheard’s office has a map on the wall of the landscape between Browning, the tribal government seat, and the Two Medicine River. Completing the upgrades will take time, as every proposed foot of underground fiber trench requires an archaeological assessment to ensure no cultural or historic resources get disturbed.

“That’s the last copper hub here,” he said of the sprinkling of homes and ranches along Joe Show Road that cuts across the reservation’s midsection. “We want to get the fiber along there and then to Heart Butte and back to Browning. Our goal is to be on par with the rest of the world. We’ll be able to offer a gig up and down, instead of 25 megs down and 3 up. We don’t want to just meet a benchmark like that. We want to shoot for beyond that.”

Into the future: COVID relief upgrades internet for Blackfeet (missoulian.com)