The Fond du Lac reservation will soon catch up to the modern technology that surrounds them and which has been frustratingly just out of reach for many rural areas.
Some 160 miles of high speed broadband main line fiber will be installed starting at the end of this month and completed by October 2018. There will also be 78 miles of drops, or connections, to homes, with one central office in Sawyer and another in Brookston.
"This is needed for the reservation," said Fred Underwood, IT director for the Band.
"Connectivity is available anywhere, but is it affordable?" he added, noting that for most in rural communities it is not.
The groundbreaking ceremony Thursday, July 27, was a culmination of several years of work to get the project to this point.
"It all started 12 years ago with a discussion about how the reservation should not be handicapped by the lack of connectivity," said Underwood. He said they were turned down the first time they applied for a grant, but never gave up. The current project began about five years ago with much paperwork and patience involved. Underwood was notified they had received the grants about two years ago and finally had the money become available recently.
Dirt flew amid much clapping and cheering Thursday as the Reservation Business Committee members and other key employees shoveled and tossed the hard-packed dirt as best they could. Next, the wooden shell of the utility building for the fiber optic network was set on a cement slab by a huge crane as everyone watched. Each of the RBC members said a few words about what bringing high speed internet to the reservation meant to them. Comments ranged from members being able to access health information, school children being able to work from home, and the several businesses on the reservation being able to grow with the help of the new internet connection.
"This will bring us into the 21st century. Our communities have always been behind the times with non-Indian communities," said Secretary/treasurer Ferdinand Martineau.
Sawyer District II Representative Bruce Savage talked business.
"I have been a small-business man in this community for over 20 years and within the community of Sawyer I can name a minimum of eight tribal members who also have small businesses in this community," Savage said. "In today's competitive world for business, this is a huge movement towards letting them have access." He added that he has been paying outrageous internet fees that don't work.
The Community Connect Program awarded both of its Minnesota USDA grants in the amount of $3 million each to the Fond du Lac Band to help with the project. The estimated project cost is $8.2 million, of which the Fond du Lac Band will contribute $2.2 million.
The project will help improve the quality of lives for both Band and non-Band members within the reservation when it connects the fiber network to roughly 1,000 homes, providing internet speeds of up to one gigabit per second.
Residents will be able to access important information from home, such as home health care, telemedicine, online schooling, and business development. Students will be able to research for homework from their own homes instead of getting a ride to the community center to access the internet.
"It means you can access applications for jobs, you can see what is offered to the reservation people from the website, you can work with the clinic with your health issues, you can work with the college on your education issues, and you can make your life so much better," Martineau said. "It is very important for our community to have that access and I think it's a great project. It not only benefits the Fond du Lac Band but will benefit everyone in the project area."
"This will leapfrog us ahead of those around us," said Underwood, adding the fiber internet lasts longer than other types, for example companies who uses a cable for internet connectivity.
Another perk of the fiber versus companies that use cable is no shared bandwidth. With cable companies, for example, neighbors who have the same company also share the same bandwidth, which can slow down the internet when many are using it at the same time. Families that use several wireless devices in a home at the same time have noticeably slower internet on most types of connectivity. Not so with broadband.
When the RBC members had finished, representatives for U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan each spoke.
According to a 2014 Pine Journal story, the Band had already completed four broadband initiatives which vastly increased internet connectivity on the reservation at the time. The band created 13 hotspots with free WIFI access across the reservation, which covered 10 square miles and extended to about 40 nearby homes.
The process began slowly, with the Band installing a business network for all Band-owned businesses, the school and the tribal center many years ago. The Band provided a variety of free internet and computer training classes to help members learn how to navigate the virtual reality highway.
With the new, faster internet, the playing field will be leveled and provide Band members with the same opportunities of those around them.
There are several "next steps," including construction and getting the word out to residents that there is an affordable option.
Underwood also wants residents to be aware that the grant covers the cost of running the fiber from the curb to the homes, no matter if it's only a few yards or a mile. If residents wait until the grant is done, the homeowner will be required to pay for the fiber to be run from the street to the home. Brookston and the Big Lake Road area of the reservation will not be able to access the new broadband network.
Monthly costs for the broadband are still under discussion, but Underwood said it will be more affordable than what is currently available to many residents.
"It has to be affordable or we are not helping people," said Underwood.
The first broadband should be available on the reservation in a small pilot program next spring.