Tribal Digital Village’s Quest for Connectivity
Native tribal communities living in remote reservations outside of San Diego were barely able to send an email when the Tribal Digital Village (TDV) network first flickered with power in 2001. Now, thanks to the vision of the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association (SCTCA) and determined TDV staff, who have had to creatively maneuver around many obstacles on their journey to connectivity, the network provides Internet access for around 110 tribal municipalities across 17 reservations and can carry several gigabits worth of data.
TDV aims to broaden the network by deploying to personal homes on each reservation, most of which still lack adequate Internet access. In a recent interview with CENIC, Matthew Rantanen, director of technology for SCTCA, discussed TDV’s deployment strategies and the barriers it still faces. TDV’s long-term vision is to close the digital divide by bringing tribal communities the infrastructure they need to flourish within a rapidly digitizing world.
Rantanen and his crew have tackled the lack of connectivity from multiple angles. Their infrastructure uses both fiber-optic cable and a point-to-multi-point wireless system of 23 radio towers, 20 of which run on solar power. “We have a backbone that goes from our data center to the furthest point of our network, 85 miles away,” said Rantanen. “There’s a 10-gigabit circuit at our data center, and we recently established fiber in East County, creating a redundant path. We had a single point of failure for over a decade, but we’ve sorted that out and have two pathways now.” This redundancy makes the network far more reliable. Towers are set up such that a backbone tower connects to a distribution tower, which then broadcasts Internet into a community.
The team is now occupied with an improved power buildout for its 20 off-the-grid, solar-powered towers. “Power is why the network goes down, not network problems,” said Rantanen. “So, quality of service says that when we establish reliable, sufficient power, we’re opening the floodgates to do installs, which lead to broader distribution.” Backup generators will be brought online when solar power runs low, making the network more dependable.
Though TDVNet continues to grow, there are still deployment paths that remain frustratingly out of reach. “One thing we’d really like to do is get some spectrum in the range of what they use for cellular connections — all the stuff that’s sub-one gigahertz,” said Rantanen. “That spectrum goes through trees without issue and can bounce off rocks and go around corners. It’s pretty unique.” Expanding into lower-frequency cellular spectrum would significantly extend the reach of TDV’s radio broadcast system. Unfortunately, cellular spectrum in the area is already owned by large telecommunications companies, which Rantanen predicts won’t expand service into the reservations anytime soon, due to the high cost of infrastructure build-outs and the relatively small customer base offered by tribal communities.
Rantanen also hopes to gain more bandwidth in the unlicensed spectrum and lay down more fiber, but has run into impediments on both fronts. “Right now we’re using everything in the unlicensed spectrum,” Rantanen said. “Our main first tower up from the data center uses every channel and frequency available.” Fiber is the most permanent and reliable connectivity solution, but TDV faces steep costs for its implementation, due to the rough geography and rocky ground of the communities it serves. “Normally it’s about $29 per foot when you’re running fiber through smooth terrain,” said Rantanen, “but [with] rocks and rough terrain, it’s often up to $89 a foot, which is cost prohibitive.” Improvements in either deployment strategy would greatly improve Internet accessibility and affordability for the tribal communities.
Fiber connectivity challenges are one reason that Rantanen is working to establish a connection with CENIC, which he thinks will dramatically improve the network’s capabilities. Connecting to CENIC will bring many benefits, including access to CENIC’s resources and lower coverage rates from commercial network providers. “It’s just a great relationship with all the leadership at CENIC and the partners of CENIC,” said Rantanen. “It’s been a really good opportunity to grow, not only in southern California, but all over California.” Rantanen noted that TDV’s mission, like CENIC’s, is to create a resource-rich network designed to connect and aid its community of users.
The more progress that TDV makes, the more the tribes see the substantial positive impact Internet access has on their communities. Witnessing the benefits encourages TDV’s staff to diligently seek out new avenues for better deployment, despite the obstacles in their path. We at CENIC support their tireless efforts to overcome vast terrain and bridge the digital divide as we work to develop strategies that will connect TDVnet and CENIC to the benefit of the communities we both serve.
Watch this space for an upcoming article on the positive effects that Internet access has had on SCTCA communities.
Learn more about the Tribal Digital Village and the communities it serves, and watch Matt Rantanen’s presentation at the 2018 CENIC Annual conference as well as other plenary panels and presentations.
For further reading:
- "Spectrum Sharing Moves Ahead" GCN, 3/28/18