The Tribal Digital Village has been working since 2001 to improve access to internet for reservation residents, and has faced some unique challenges.
Richard Caneba, a graduate student at Penn State who worked on the white space project, with one of the antennae. Image: Courtesy Richard Caneba
Indigenous peoples living on tribal lands are some of the most underserved people in the US when it comes to broadband. Many tribes share similar barriers no matter where they are in the country. But one group of tribes in southern California is using every tool it can think of, including using television spectrum to broadcast internet wirelessly. Unfortunately, they've run into one totally unique hurdle: TV channels are bleeding over the border from Mexico, and eating up their spectrum.
"That is another piece of adventure that came along," said Matthew Rantanen, the director of technology for the Southern California Tribal Chairmen's Association (SCTCA), a consortium of 19 federally recognized Indian tribes in Southern California, including citizens of the Kumeyaay Nation and the Mission Indians.
Rantanen leads the Tribal Digital Village Initiative, a project of the SCTCA that aims to bring broadband to as many of its 8,900 residents as possible. Since 2001, the group has built more than 350 miles of point-to-point links covering 86 tribal buildings, such as fire stations and schools. Most of that has been achieved through licensing unused spectrum from the FCC and building towers to beam internet wirelessly across the spectrum to local communities.
But recently, Rantanen teamed up with some researchers from Pennsylvania State University to test out using so-called "white space" to increase their range into more remote areas. Many frequencies that previously broadcasted analog TV channels are no longer used, since stations have switched to digital, which requires less spectrum space. These unused channels, or "white space," can act like Wi-Fi extenders, bringing internet to further reaches. Rantanen was eager to see if it could help expand the number of residents served by Tribal Digital Village.
Across the country, 41 percent of Indigenous peoples living on reservations don't have access to fixed high-speed internet, according to the Federal Communications Commission's most recent report. Indigenous peoples living in rural areas are even worse off, with 68 percent lacking access to broadband. Some issues are basically universal: Reservations are less-densely populated, and as sovereign nations, telecom companies would need to negotiate with each tribe individually. But certain tribes face unexpected challenges that go beyond the typical.
"We're finding that it's not all that it's advertised to be," Rantanen told me over the phone. "White space is supposed to be capable of bouncing off rocks, going around corners, and shooting through trees. But because the engineering department of the FCC restricted the power amplification and the number of channels you can use, it really limited the functionality of the spectrum."
They found that riding on a white space channel to deliver internet didn't produce a strong enough signal to reach these remote communities without a direct line of sight. Their solution was to put a tower on top of one of the mountains that dot the tribal lands, but that's when they encountered a new problem.
When the FCC mandated that US TV stations switch from analog to digital, that freed up a lot of space on this side of the border. But in Mexico, many channels still broadcast on analog, and in southern California, that means a lot of interference leaking over.
"Most of our locations are within 70 miles of Mexico," Rantanen said. "The problem is Mexico is still using the channels, so there's a lot of noise at a certain height."
Earlier this summer, the team successfully deployed its first white space antenna, installing it on a 20-foot pole next to a resident's house instead of the mountaintop. This solved the interference problem, but still was only able to deliver 12mbps of wireless internet, which Rantanen said isn't enough to serve even 10 customers.
This isn't to say there's not a role for white space in TDV's ongoing development. Rantenan said it may be a useful tool for extending the network in "last mile" situations, but said the white space issues are just another hurdle he's encountered in trying to improve access to broadband. From lack of spectrum space, to TV interference over the border, to tree leaves blocking signals, Rantenan told me it's been extremely challenging.
"When we get out to the remote locations like where we have this white space experiment, there isn't a solution," he said. "In that situation, we're stuck. That's why we were really hoping white space would be the answer."
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