The Lac du Flambeau tribe plans to build its own Internet service with a federal grant

Residents of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa reservation have been dealing with poor internet speeds for years. Then, tribal officials took matters into their own hands.

The tribe received a $25.6 million federal grant from the US Department of Commerce this year. The tribe plans to use the funds to build a self-contained broadband system that would be installed and operated by the tribe.

The Federal Communications Commission defines an internet service as “broadband” if it offers download speeds of 25 megabits per second and at least three megabytes of upload speed. Chief operations officer of the tribe, Dion Reynolds, he said most tribal members are unable to achieve those speeds with some “near dial-up speeds”.

Reynolds and Emerson Coy, the director of planning and development for the tribe, recently appeared on Wisconsin Public Radio “The morning show” to detail the obstacles ahead and why the tribe took this unusual step.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Kate Archer Kent: How many households in the booking will have access to this high speed broadband service?

Emerson Coy: Our goal is to have 2,300 homes connected to it. And if there are other activities coming up, we will too. It will take a couple of years to get to all of them, because it’s a very large project. We live in an area where there are many lakes. We are 12 miles by 12 miles – 144 square miles – one third is water. We are going around the lakes. It’s not like in the city (where) everything is subdivision. We have our work cut out for us, but we’ve planned everything pretty well.

KAK: What is the timeline to get your internet service up and running?

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THERE IS: We’re hoping something will start operating this fall, but we can’t guarantee that. It depends if there are obstacles along the way. It takes time to do that. We would work with the municipalities, the county, the state on those right of way issues. If we have to, we can get an extension. We have a two and a half year grant to complete it.

KAK: What will high-speed Internet do for workforce development and economic development?

Dion Reynolds: We did some polls and talked to several people about the importance of the Internet. There are actually people who (they say) living in the area is almost something they are not willing to do because of the speed of the internet and because their jobs depend on it. People who wouldn’t normally be able to work in the area due to the internet connection…some of them are remote workers where they can actually work from home. This is how the world is going right now. But in an area where our internet speed isn’t capable of that, it sort of takes away from us the opportunity to live in this beautiful area up here and be able to have those jobs.

KAK: You raise tribal sovereignty, digital sovereignty and support tribal citizens to build and run their own broadband networks in tribal lands. What could Wisconsin do to promote and support digital sovereignty?

DR: I think having more (dialogue) directly with different tribes would be an important step in building that between government and tribal governments. The grant was not readily available at the time we started. We started about two years ago. We reached out to several organizations and some of them might have had a conversation with us, but they weren’t as significant as we’d hoped. One of the things that would really help is to start with that meaningful conversation and look into what the tribes are really trying to accomplish in their own areas.

KAK: What does digital sovereignty mean to you?

THERE IS: It means a lot, because it puts us in the driver’s seat. And we don’t have to depend on other companies to care about our rates or what we’re doing and who we’re offering the Internet to. We’ll do our own thing, which is truly an amazing feat for us.