Trust needed just as much as technology to close Tribal broadband gap

Broadband offers an economic lifeline for residents on Tribal lands, but face time with local officials is required just as much as funding and technological flexibility to make it a reality, Muralnet CEO Mariel Triggs told Fierce.

Muralnet was founded in 2017 to help bring internet service to Tribal lands by working with indigenous communities to design, build and develop sustainable plans to operate local fixed and wireless networks. Over the years the company has looped in some big name partners, including Google, Facebook and Cisco, Triggs said. The company’s first project saw it team with the Supai to deliver connectivity to their village at the bottom of the Grand Canyon using private LTE. But more recently, the company has focused on helping Tribes access federal funding to build fiber networks.

It’s no secret that delivering broadband on Tribal lands presents a number of unique challenges. According to the Federal Communications Commission’s Broadband Deployment Report released in 2021, the “remote, isolated nature of these areas, combined with challenging terrain and lower incomes, increase the cost of network deployment and entry, thereby reducing the profitability of providing service.” That’s a problem for tribes in trying to attract outside investment. The FCC’s report stated that as of the end of 2019, around 21% of residents on Tribal lands lacked access to basic broadband service offering speeds of 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up, compared to around 4% of the general U.S. population and 1% of those in urban areas.

But Triggs and Muralnet COO Jose Matanane noted there’s one other element that’s often overlooked by the ISPs and vendors who are willing to work with tribes: trust.

“You have to build that trust relationship” with Tribal governments and councils, Matanane explained. “Their [ISP/vendor] Tribal engagement is a letter by the VP or somebody like that” but what they should be doing is meeting face-to-face with Tribal leaders. This is especially important for communities which have a history of being on the receiving end of broken promises from the government and other large entities.

“I have to explain Mariel when I show up, not Muralnet,” Triggs added. “They need to know who my parents are and where they came from and whether or not I’m trustworthy and why the heck I’m there.”

She continued it’s critical for vendors and other partners to really understand what the tribes are trying to achieve before they try to pitch a solution as a “win-win.” “If you don’t understand what the goals are of the tribe then you can’t make that call,” she said.

Fiber versus fixed wireless

In working with tribes, Muralnet originally focused on using fixed wireless for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it’s faster and easier to deploy than fiber, meaning communities can get connected right away. Another is that the populations on Tribal lands tend to shift around. People move and homes can become abandoned, making it advantageous to have a more flexible solution that can be picked up and moved to keep residents connected wherever they are. Wireless systems also skirt permitting processes which can be trickier for underground fiber builds in tribal territory where the land is considered sacred or has other historical value.

That said, there are some drawbacks. Specifically, it’s harder for fixed wireless systems to provide symmetrical 100 Mbps speeds required by newer broadband funding programs. Triggs also said that while she loves fixed wireless technology, “the gold standard is fiber.”

In December 2020, the U.S. government created a $1 billion Tribal Connectivity Program as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021. It followed up with another $2 billion for Tribal broadband as part of the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Tribes can also tap into loans and grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Broadband ReConnect program, which added a dedicated allotment for tribal governments in its third funding round.

With money flowing in, Triggs said Muralnet has spent the past year and a half working to make it easy for tribes to apply for funding to fuel fiber deployments either alongside an ISP partner or by themselves. “That’s what our goal is until this money runs out,” she said. “How can we make it easy for these small tribes which have like one tribal administrator and not much else to be able to build out the network that’s going to last them for 50 years.”

In terms of getting the actual work done, she said some have had to physically dig the trenches themselves with shovels, while others have access to heavy machinery like plows to make things easier.

Openness and sustainability

While current funding programs can help tribes get networks in the ground, Matanane and Triggs argued more help is needed to ensure the systems that are deployed can be sustained.

“Once you build this infrastructure, they need to have the ability to sustain it and monies for that,” Matanane said. “We don’t want to set them up for failure, we want long term [success].”

One of the ways Muralnet is already trying to make networks more sustainable for its partners is offering up free network core software from open source platform Magma as an option in their deployments. While other systems might offer “slick” tools that make managing the network easier, they often have a high subscription cost that can raise network OpEx for the tribe, Triggs said.

“We just try to make sure they have the information to make an educated choice,” she concluded. “One of the most common is some sort of open source core, or something that’s cheap that is then managed by some sort of system integrator that they trust.”