Montana Public Radio

Federal Funding Could Provide A Billion Dollar Boost To Tribal Broadband Infrastructure

Jan 14, 2021

The build-out of wireless broadband networks in Indian Country may get a boost from a new $1 billion tribal broadband fund. The federal fund was set up by the latest COVID relief bill late last year.

Inside a small server room, fans blazing, Chuck Reese with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes is pointing to tiny white labels on the back of a server. They name the locations of four cellular towers on the mostly rural Flathead Indian Reservation. 

“This is the actual fiber that goes to each tower.”

Those towers blanket roughly 1,300 square miles with high-speed wireless connectivity. But Reese says there’s still some set-up needed before some of the first users likely begin using the tribes’ network later this month. The wireless network will allow tribal employees, who would otherwise not have access to high-speed internet, to work from home

“We can put a client device right at your house, and it'd just be like having an office right at your home."

Chuck Reese with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes lead the build-out of the tribe's wireless network. It will give tribal employees the ability to work from home and the network is expected to provide tribal departments with many mobile tools.
Credit Aaron Bolton / Montana Public Radio

This is one of the first tribally-controlled wireless networks to come out of a Federal Communications Commission program that gave tribes across the U.S. highly-valuable wireless spectrum licenses for free. The FCC has approved all seven applications for those licenses submitted by Montana tribes. The licenses allow tribes to broadcast high-speed broadband, but they still have to build and pay for the necessary infrastructure.

“There are going to be 200-300 projects that are going to be built in Indian Country," says Geoff Blackwell.

Blackwell, a former FCC official, is with Amerind Risk Management, a Native-owned insurance company that also helps tribes build broadband infrastructure. 

Blackwell says the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are ahead of the curve. Other tribes have their licenses from the FCC, but have been searching for funding to get these network projects off the ground. Blackwell says these expensive network build-outs could now receive a serious boost from a new $1 billion tribal broadband fund set up by the latest federal COVID relief legislation.

“As far as the federal investment, there’s nothing that compares. This is on par with the eras of rural electrification and the Eisenhower Interstate system.” 

After receiving their spectrum license from the FCC, the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes in northeast Montana had been struggling to find grant funding to build their network. Tribal Executive Board Member Kaci Wallette says the new federal tribal brodband fund has revitalized the tribe's hopes of making that a reality.

"We have a lot of members that live in these little rural areas that always get left out, and they are disconnected." 

Wallette says this is the tribe's chance to narrow the digital divide for many tribal members, who she says private internet and wireless providers have overlooked for years.