Alaska Native villages can claim their airways for internet networks, but the deadline’s soon

A wireless internet tower in Oscarville. (Photo from U.S. Government Accountability Office report on rural telecommunications)

In 2019, MuralNet CEO Mariel Triggs helped bring Internet connectivity to the Havasupai reservation, the Lower 48’s most isolated tribe, as part of a pilot program to give tribes the ability to operate their own communications networks over broadband airwaves.

That program was a success, beaming internet into a reservation that’s surrounded by the Grand Canyon accessible only by foot, by mule or by helicopter, and it helped pave the way to the Federal Communications Commission opening a window federally recognized tribes and Alaska Native villages to apply for licenses to operate their own wireless communications networks.

In an interview with The Midnight Sun, Triggs said she hopes Alaska Native villages take advantage of it and take advantage of it soon. The deadline closes on Aug. 3 at 2 p.m. Alaska time.

“This is amazing stuff,” she said. “It’s really ideal for these situations in rural America and rural tribal lands. You might have high speed internet that is connected, and you could beam that to people’s homes for less than the price of a Corolla.”

MuralNet is a nonprofit aimed at helping indigenous peoples claim and set up their own internet networks, especially in low-density and remote areas that aren’t profitable to big communications companies.

The licenses would give tribes and villages priority to the 2.5 gigahertz broadband spectrum, allowing them to operate their own small-scale communications networks akin to cellphone service, beaming internet into homes and onto mobile devices. And with increasingly affordable off-the-shelf parts, she said villages could set this up for around $15,000 or less.

It wouldn’t necessarily bring internet into the communities—though she said there are promising new technologies such as low-Earth orbit satellites that will soon be able to beam affordable high-speed internet into remote communities starting next year—but it would allow whatever connection there is to be easily spread into peoples’ homes.

And though much of the focus is on internet connectivity, Triggs also said that tribes and villages could get creative with it. A school, for example, could set up its own library of information stored locally at the school and create access through the network.

“Those are just the things we can foresee,” she said of opportunities like education, economic development and remote working. “You’re basically building a road and who knows where It’s going to lead.”

She said as of Tuesday only about 11% of the available land in Alaska had been claimed.

The FCC requires tribes and villages to begin building out the network within two years otherwise they’ll lose the license, but she noted that there’s no other penalty and no fines for failing to do so. She said, too, that tribes could also turn around and work with private companies to set up and operate the networks.

The application can be completed through nonprofit organization Tribal25 and takes about an hour, Triggs said. She urged villages and tribes to take advantage of it before the window closes and the spectrum is put up for auction to the highest bidder.

“You can do all sorts of different things to control your internet access easier and it gives you a place at the table,” she said. “A person who has authority to sign off for the tribe and has an hour before now and Monday 6 p.m. Eastern, it’s time well-spent.”

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