LAC DU FLAMBEAU – Frustrated by the poor internet service from this part of Wisconsin’s only commercial provider, tribal officials at Lac du Flambeau decided to build and operate their own internet.
“During COVID, it’s been sticking out like a sore thumb,” said Dion Reynolds, chief operating officer of Lac du Flambeau.
When people were forced to work and go to school from home at the start of the pandemic, many people on the reservation found they couldn’t even email because of spotty internet service.
Reynolds said tribal officials first contacted the only internet provider in rural northern Wisconsin.
But he said the company had no plan to address the situation and he did not believe the reservation was a priority service area for the company.
The 86,600-acre reservation is primarily in Vilas County in northern Wisconsin.
Reynolds said the industry standard for the Internet is to have at least 25 megabytes of download speed and three megabytes of upload speed, and the service on the reservation falls far short of that.
“The majority of our members aren’t able to hit those speeds,” Reynolds said. “Some are close to dial-up speeds.”
He said many people on the Lac du Flambeau reserve simply use their mobile phones as a mobile hotspot to connect.
Tribal officials began seeking federal grants that would fund the installation of broadband internet infrastructure on the reservation.
“When the grant became available, we already had the research in place to apply,” Reynolds said.
This fall, the tribe announced that it had received a $25.6 million grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce to build the broadband system. It will be owned and operated by the tribe.
“This is a game-changer for the community and the Northwoods,” said DFL President John D. Johnson Sr.
Reynolds said the broadband system will involve the installation of fiber optic cables that will initially serve about 2,300 tribal households on the reservation, which has about 4,000 households in total. There are also about 1,700 non-tribal households on the reservation, but the grant focused on providing services to tribal households. The tribe has a population of approximately 3,500 citizens.
“It will be a top-of-the-line system,” he said. “It will stand the test of time. Fiber seems to be a safe bet for the next 40 years.
Reynolds said initial download speeds will be 100 megabytes, but the system can handle gigabyte speeds as well.
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Reynolds said the tribe hopes to expand the system in the future to reach every household on the reservation.
The plan is for internet service to begin reaching tribal households by fall 2023 and take at least a year to reach all tribal households.
Reynolds said construction could be delayed due to global supply shortages. But he said he’s thrilled the tribe can finally start prioritizing itself when it comes to providing internet service on the reservation.
“This project will not only provide fast and reliable internet, but it will also help us in our goal of achieving self-determination,” said Brian Gauthier, who works on the tribe’s broadband project team. “With Tribal Digital Sovereignty, we will no longer be at the mercy of commercial Internet Service Providers.”
Frank Vaisvilas is a member of the Report for America body that covers Native American issues in Wisconsin based at the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 815-260-2262. Follow him on Twitter at @vaisvilas_frankYou can support his work directly with a tax-deductible donation online at GreenBayPressGazette.com/RFA or by check payable to The GroundTruth Project with the subject Report for America Green Bay Press Gazette Campaign. Address: The GroundTruth Project, Lockbox Services, 9450 SW Gemini Drive, PMB 46837, Beaverton, Oregon 97008-7105.
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