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Tuesday, April 23, 2024
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Lac Du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians celebration photographed from an aerial view. Courtesy of Lac Du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians Facebook

A Wisconsin tribal community didn’t have reliable internet, so they built it

The Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Native Americans will break ground on a public broadband network this spring, bridging the reservation’s “digital divide.”

Located on the scenic shores of Pokegama Lake in Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin, Harrison’s Pub and Grill is a local favorite on warm summer days. When the sun turns to snow, visitors are certain to find a full house of snowmobilers stopped for a respite from the harsh winter weather.

Its menu is quintessential Wisconsin: Friday fish fries, cheese curds and, of course, beer.

But one thing is not on the menu: reliable internet.

“It’s horrible,” said Harrison’s owner Joy Hanser.

Harrison’s gets its internet through Frontier, the area’s main wired internet provider. And while their business internet plan provides a “decent” connection to keep their day-to-day operations running, Hanser said the Wi-Fi struggles to keep up, frustrating customers.

“They want to get online. Cell phone service up here is horrible as well. So, what they'll try to do is use the internet to make an internet call to family and say, ‘Hey, we stopped at Harrison's, we'll be home in an hour,’ right? But you can't do that either because cell service isn’t working, and now we can't get online,” Hanser said.

Hanser’s story isn’t unique. Unreliable internet has plagued Lac du Flambeau for years, frustrating locals and making routine parts of life — like work, education and healthcare — difficult. Now, thanks to a federal grant, help is on the way.

This spring, Lac du Flambeau’s Business Development Corporation will break ground on a $25.6 million infrastructure project focused on building a publicly-owned broadband network.

The project, funded through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, aims to connect all houses on the Lac du Flambeau reservation with high-speed internet by January 2026.

“The internet is the way of the world today,” said Dion Reynolds, chief operating officer of the Business Development Corporation. “Without that connection, the tribe and tribal membership is missing out on a huge chunk of what’s going on.”

Providers didn’t meet community needs

Vilas County, where most of the Lac du Flambeau reservation resides, has 25,449 broadband service locations (BSLs), which are places where broadband internet is or can be installed. 

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Of those, 15,796, or 62%, are underserved, unserved or otherwise lack service altogether, according to data from the Wisconsin Public Service Commission. While only 18% of BSLs statewide are service-limited, these kinds of coverage issues are endemic across the rural north. In neighboring Oneida County, 42% are service-limited. To the west in Iron County, that number is as high as 71%.

Most of the reservation runs internet speeds slower than the Federal Communications Commission standard of 100 megabits per second (Mbps), with some areas even running speeds below 1 Mbps. Where internet service isn’t available, some residents turn to local cell towers.

“If you're coming right down the main strip, your internet speeds are going to be well above what you need. But going down those side roads, away from that main strip, you see the performance dip dramatically,” Reynolds said. “And that’s where a lot of housing units are.” 

Currently, several private internet providers operate in the area. The main local exchange provider is Frontier, which offers wired services via copper wiring. Other homes in the area rely on wireless providers like HughesNet, SonicNet and Starlink, Elon Musk’s satellite internet startup.

These providers aren’t meeting the community’s needs, Reynolds said. “[The] digital divide they always talk about only gets wider.”

At her home on the reservation, Hanser’s situation is even worse. There, her internet runs through HughesNet, a satellite service.

“If the wind blows the wrong way, it doesn’t work. It’s horrible. I’ll turn my computer on, then I look at it and go, ‘I better go do some laundry.’ I’ll do the laundry, come back, ‘Yep, it hasn’t loaded yet.’ Then I’ll go fold laundry, and I’ll come back. ‘There we are!’” Hanser said.

Hanser’s internet is gig-limited, meaning speeds gradually slow throughout the month. When she’s off the clock at Harrison’s, Hanser runs two other businesses from home, something slow internet speeds make “miserable.”

On top of it all, Hanser’s internet situation complicates ordinary parts of life, like finding news. 

This especially comes into play with TV news. When snow storms batter her house in the winter, Hanser loses signal until the snow melts or she decides to climb her roof and brush the satellite off herself.

“It’s just so frustrating. The services are so antiquated here or just haven’t been a priority.”

Pandemic prompts a new way forward

Although internet access has been a struggle in Lac du Flambeau for years, the COVID-19 pandemic was a point of reckoning for the tribe. Everything from online schooling to remote work needed quality, high-speed internet. 

To solve their connection issue, tribal leaders in 2021 pursued a 3.5 gigahertz (GHz) spectrum allocation through the FCC. They got it, but leaders decided to pursue a different solution due to competition with local entities and other concerns.

Meanwhile, between 2020 and the end of 2021, Congress passed two bills — the Consolidated Appropriations Act and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act — that established the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program and allocated $3 billion in grants to build tribal broadband networks. 

Lac du Flambeau leaders jumped at the opportunity. By the end of 2022, the NTIA awarded the tribe $25.6 million to build their own network. From there, the tribe partnered with private contractor Elexco Inc. to build the network.

In January 2024, the tribe passed its final hurdle: environmental clearance from the Department of Commerce.

Once constructed, the federally-funded network will provide new opportunities for their community to participate in telehealth, online education, remote work and countless other benefits that internet access can bring, said Margaret Gutierrez, acting division chief of the Tribal Broadband Connectivity program. “Through President Biden’s Internet for All initiative, we are providing the resources necessary to deploy high-quality, high-speed internet service across Tribal Lands.”

Once built, the network will be owned and operated by the tribe under the public brand EighthFire Communications. Entry-level packages will start at 75 Mbps, then 150 Mbps and 225 Mbps, with the hope of sustaining 1 gigabit per second in the future.

The tribe stands ready to break ground in a matter of months, intending to put its first fiber cables in the ground by May. From there, they hope to connect their first home in the fall and all homes by January 2026.

“It’s gonna be night and day,” Reynolds said.

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Nick Bumgardner

Nick Bumgardner is a staff writer with The Daily Cardinal covering state news and politics. You can follow him on Twitter at @nickbum_.

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