Lac du Flambeau tribe in northern Wisconsin building its own internet – Green Bay Press Gazette

LAC DU FLAMBEAU – Frustrated by poor internet service from that part of Wisconsin’s only commercial provider, Lac du Flambeau tribal officials decided to build and operate their own internet.
“During COVID, it came out like a sore thumb,” said Dion Reynolds, Lac du Flambeau’s chief operating officer.
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 send an email because of spotty internet service.
Reynolds said tribal officials first reached out to the only internet provider in the rural area of northern Wisconsin.
But he said the company didn’t have a plan to address the situation and he didn’t feel the reservation was 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 internet is to have at least 25 megabytes of download speed and three megabytes of upload speed, and service on the reservation is nowhere near that.
“A majority of our members are not able to reach those speeds,” Reynolds said. “Some are close to dial-up speeds.”
He said many people on the Lac du Flambeau reservation simply use their cell phones as mobile hot spots to connect.
Tribal officials started researching 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 it received a $25.6 million grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce to construct the broadband system. It will be owned and operated by the tribe.
“This is a game-changer for the community and the Northwoods,” said LDF President John D. Johnson Sr.
Reynolds said the broadband system will involve installing fiber optic cables that will initially serve around 2,300 tribal households on the reservation, which has about 4,000 total households. There are also about 1,700 non-tribal households on the reservation, but the grant was focused on providing service for the tribal households. The tribe has a population of about 3,500 citizens.
“This will be a top-of-the-line system,” he said. “It’ll be future-proof. Fiber seems to be a safe bet for the next 40 years.”
Reynolds said initial download speeds will be at 100 megabytes, but the system also can handle gigabyte speeds.
More: ‘It’s about who we are, my heritage, my culture’: Indigenous tribes in Wisconsin grapple with blood quantum dilemma amid declining enrollment
More: Wisconsin’s story doesn’t start with Jean Nicolet. A brief history of forced relocation and ‘landcestry.’
Reynolds said the tribe hopes to build out the system in the future to expand to all households on the reservation.
The plan is for the internet service to start reaching tribal households by the fall of 2023 and taking at least a year to reach all the tribal households.
Reynolds said construction may be delayed as a result of global supply shortages. But he said he’s excited the tribe can finally start prioritizing itself when it comes to providing internet service on the reservation.
“This project not only will provide fast and reliable internet, it will also assist us in our goal of reaching 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 providers.”
Frank Vaisvilas is a Report for America corps member who covers Native American issues in Wisconsin based at the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Contact him at fvaisvilas@gannett.com or 815-260-2262. Follow him on Twitter at @vaisvilas_frank.You can directly support his work with a tax-deductible donation online at  GreenBayPressGazette.com/RFA or by check made out to The GroundTruth Project with subject line 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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Post expires at 3:06pm on Thursday February 16th, 2023

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