Broadband internet access in Alaska’s village can be difficult, spotty and — with few local options — expensive.
Now, a new program from the Federal Communications Commission is giving tribes across the country the opportunity to claim licenses within the 2.5 GHz spectrum that would allow them to provide broadband to their communities.
To understand what the 2.5 GHz spectrum is, Mariel Triggs suggests thinking about it like a radio signal. She’s the CEO of MuralNet, a nonprofit tech company that helps tribal communities across the country with maintaining internet networks.
“You have AM radio, you have FM radio, and you have the 2.5 GHz band as well,” Triggs said. “And what’s great about the 2.5 GHz band is that it’s prime spectrum in order to broadcast internet.”
In order to claim part of that spectrum, you need a license from the FCC. Starting in February, the agency opened a Rural Tribal Window where tribes can apply for those licenses for free. If approved, they would control a section of the spectrum that falls on their tribal land.
Triggs said that once a tribe has that license, they can begin to build their network.
“So if you have access to the internet at one spot super fast — say the tribal government center or maybe the hospital, school or library — you can broadcast that internet to the homes in the surrounding community pretty easily,” Triggs said. “Put up a little bit of cellular equipment, which is off the shelf and pretty cheap, and then you deliver the home units, very much like a hot spot.”
Triggs has done similar work with Lower 48 tribes, and she says the results speak for themselves. For example, a tribal college in Arizona recently used their spectrum access to help students and staff work remotely when the coronavirus began to spread.
“So it just took a couple days for Dine College and Navajo Technical University to deploy their own network and connect their faculty, staff and students off-campus,” Triggs said. “Which meant they didn’t have to come on campus and possibly get exposed, and they were able to continue classes.”
Triggs said the spectrum can be used to establish a network to provide free internet access to tribal members, or to use a network to drive down the price of competing internet service providers.
Several Alaska tribes have already applied for the FCC program, including the Yukon-Koyukon village of Ruby, about 230 miles west of Fairbanks.
Ryan Lee Madros is the maintenance official for the village. He said the village intends to use their broadband spectrum to start their own network. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how the spectrum could help with telehealth services, he said.
“Our tribal members can contact their doctors in town easier from home,” Madros said. “They don’t have to go through a whole process of getting tested and flying back into Fairbanks and seeing their doctor and getting another test and flying back out.”
Triggs said that basic broadcast equipment runs for about $15,000 — a drop in the bucket when compared to the millions of dollars that the licenses go for when auctioned off to internet service providers like GCI and AT&T.
“Getting that proprietary, protected spectrum is the hard part, and the FCC is making it really easy right now,” Triggs said.
By putting tribal governments in control of their own internet broadcasts, Triggs said it’s like a new form of sovereignty.
“You don’t have to try to convince someone else to do what’s right by your people,” Triggs said. “You get to decide yourself.”
The application deadline for tribes to file with the FCC is Aug. 3. After that, the broadband spectrum will be auctioned off by region. Triggs said tribes can go to tribal25.com for assistance on the application.