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Digital Beat: Native Networking Trends

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The Digital Beat -- 20 September 2001

Native Networking Trends: Wireless Broadband Networks

By Kade L. Twist (

Technological Leapfrogging

According to the 1999 Economic Development Administration report, Assessment of Technology Infrastructure in Native Communities, "The poor state of existing infrastructure in most Native communities means there is less of a foundation to build on." Future efforts to deploy new advanced telecommunications infrastructure would require either an upgrade of the existing infrastructure, or the deployment of new technologies that would not be heavily dependent on existing systems.

The latter idea has been circulating around Native networking circles for the past 10 years and is one of the main reasons why Indian Country has often been the focus of discussions relating to "technological leapfrogging." -- in other words, deploying next-generation communication technologies rather than trying to improve the state of technologies currently in place. Indian Country has been waiting for, and actively pursuing, inexpensive wireless technologies that enable Tribes to meet their networking needs without having to make costly incremental investments or improvements in wire-line technologies.

One highly anticipated federally-funded wireless pilot project has gone from the planning stages to implementation -- and has emerged as a successful model for large-scale advanced telecommunications infrastructure development in Indian Country. The High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network (HPWREN), a collaboration between the University of California San Diego and the Southern California Tribal Chairman Association (SCTCA), has taken incremental steps toward proving the viability of broadband wireless technologies as a solution to the networking needs of Indian Country. The project has built upon each successful achievement while expanding broadband connectivity and educational resources to a growing number of reservations in Southern California.

HPWREN: Proof of Concept for Wireless Broadband

In August 2000, the National Science Foundation awarded a $2.3 million, three-year research grant to the University of California, San Diego to deploy and evaluate a noncommercial, high-speed, wireless wide area network for research and education. Within a few months of receiving the NSF grant, a team of students and network engineers led by San Diego Supercomputer Center research scientist Hans-Werner Braun deployed the first phase of the HPWREN network -- a high-performance wireless backbone comprised of 45Mbps point-to-point links, with high-speed wireless access to individual users provided by low-cost 802.112b radios. By October 2000, Hans-Werner Braun and his team had expanded the network's reach to the foot of Palomar Mountain in North San Diego County and provided the Pala Indian reservation with its first taste of broadband connectivity. The network would eventually expanded to provide connectivity for two additional reservations -- in January 2001, to the La Jolla reservation, and in March 2001, to the Rincon reservation.

The network proved to be very cost-effective and relatively easy to install when compared to wire-line options. For one thing, installation took months instead of years and a few hundred thousand dollars instead of a few million dollars. "The incremental equipment cost of a Tribal connection using 802.11b radios, and an intermediate relay using solar array power, is probably in the $10,000 range as a fixed, one-time cost," Braun explains. And when considering that 802.11b radio receivers, which can be purchased for as low as $100 apiece, are capable of providing broadband connectivity comparable to multiple T-1 lines, this cost becomes incredibly low.

Of course, deploying a wireless network doesn't come without its own challenges. Rugged mountainous terrain with topographical variances such as steep valleys and canyons -- as is the case with the Rincon and La Jolla reservations -- made establishing a clear line of sight between each wireless connection point very difficult. Finding and getting permission for a good deployment site with direct line-of-sight was not an easy process, says Hans-Werner Braun. This was especially true at Rincon --"because Rincon sits so deep in the Pauma Valley, there were not many choices -- and none that were easy," he adds.

In spite of the topographical challenges, the HPWREN network has proven to be an effective and scalable high-speed solution. But only time will tell if the chosen technology remains reliable. "We are currently completing network measurement and analysis," noted Kimberly Burch, a member of the UCSD HPWREN team ( "We do not have any official reporting data at this time. However, I can tell you that we are quite surprised at the reliability of the network connectivity -- it is quite stable and the link is rarely down." And Burch is definitely not the only person involved with the project to comment positively about its reliability. Hans-Werner Braun, as well as the education directors and learning center directors at the three reservations, have all responded with both surprise and praise when questioned about the network's reliability.

Beyond initial connectivity

Since the initial connections to the network were established, Tribal education directors at all three reservations have been working with UCSD to develop appropriate educational programming for K-12 students and adults that utilizes their new high-speed wireless connection. Pala reservation in particular has had great success in providing network-enabled educational opportunities. This is due in part to Pala being connected to the network before La Jolla and Rincon, but is also a testament to the excellent work of Pala Learning Center coordinator Doretta Music and UCSD American Indian outreach coordinator Geneva Lofton Fitzsimmons. Their collaboration has led to the establishment of a highly successful UCSD distance tutoring program for local youth, as well as adult introductory classes to computers, the Internet, HTML and graphics design. The collaboration has also led to the improvement and expansion of the Pala Learning Center's computer lab, where 18 computers are now available. In terms of quality of connectivity and the range of services offered, the Pala Learning Center is as competitive as some of the best community technology centers in urban America.

In addition to these services, Pala also has a federally funded Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program that serves several Tribes in San Diego County. For the past 27 months, the program has been providing basic computer training, literacy and lifelong learning classes, in addition to language and culture classes, as an attempt to promote Tribal self-sufficiency. Dorthy Tauvi, the Southern California Tribal chairman Association's (SCTCA) TANF director, took advantage of the wireless network and collaborated with the UCSD Supercomputer Center to improve the quality of the classes already offered, creating a new series of classes focused on IT workforce training.

Since April 2001, the La Jolla and Rincon reservations have been working to develop programs similar to those already available at Pala. Rincon has worked with UCSD to provide a six-week Web design course and a summer networking academy designed to familiarize the younger generation with the wireless technologies employed by the HPWREN network. Rincon is also in the process of constructing a new Headstart center that will be fully wired to utilize the HPWREN connectivity for pre-schoolers. La Jolla is working to improve its computer learning center by adding additional computers and implementing a variety of classes for youth and adults to learn Internet-related skills.

Attracting a Multi-Million Dollar Grant

Once wireless broadband connectivity was established at Pala, its value immediately became apparent. The consensus among the SCTCA and a host of key Tribal leaders pointed to the need for expanding broadband connectivity to all of its 18 North San Diego and San Diego County reservations. But high-speed connectivity was not enough. Tribal leaders also wanted to expand the distance learning programs to include a more comprehensive list of subjects and classes that provide would college credit. SCTCA director Jack Ward pursued a goal to build upon the model established at Pala and export it to all 18 reservations -- and along the way, expand community awareness about the Internet's potential to enhance the quality of life.

Only four months after connectivity was established at Pala, the SCTCA applied for and received a $5 million Hewlett-Packard Philanthropy Digital Village grant. The Digital Village program is designed to help underserved communities establish high-speed Internet connectivity and develop a variety of creative applications that meet the digital goals of each respective community. HP works with each Digital Village community to develop a three-year Community Technology Partnership plan. The grant award -- which includes a combination of HP products, services, consulting and social venture capital -- is then used to support K-12 and adult educational programs, community technology centers, household Internet access and economic development. The SCTCA Tribal Digital Village plan will build on the HPWREN network model to connect the 18 reservations in North San Diego and San Diego Counties to a high-speed wireless backbone capable of supporting the networking needs among Tribal communities in ways that resemble traditional Tribal kinship and social systems -- in other words, a network of virtual Tribal villages.

The ultimate goal that many Tribal leaders hope to accomplish through its participation in the Digital Village program is the complete Tribal control over the wireless network after its initial construction is completed. But first, according to Rincon education director Hun-wat Michael Turner, "Any Tribal control of the network will depend upon collaboration. We also need a smooth transition from the work already completed by HPWREN. But our success, in terms of sustainability, will depend on training, preparation and involvement of Tribal members, especially younger Tribal members -- and all of this will have to be a result of effective collaborations."

Tribal Input

Hans-Werner Braun and the HPWREN team have been extremely inclusive in its approach to working with the Tribes. "Hans has been in direct contact with us from the beginning," notes SCTCA education coordinator Lorraine Orosco. "He comes out in the field, makes himself very available and he's very responsive. But most importantly, Hans understands the Tribes goals of self-sufficiency and technology development -- he's very conscious of that." This sentiment has been echoed by numerous other Tribal leaders, as well as by the Tribal educational directors that have been working directly with the HPWREN team.

The organizational structure for Tribal involvement starts with the SCTCA board, which is comprised of a Tribal chairman from each member Tribe. The board elects representatives from each Tribe to work with both the HP and HPWREN teams. Each of the 18 Tribal councils then elects a representative to work with SCTCA representatives. These Tribal council representatives are then responsible for presenting information about the project at Tribal council meetings. Each Tribal council and Tribal chairman, then, works directly with his or her representative throughout the span of the project.

This organizational structure insures that the Tribal leaders are involved in both the planning and implementation phases of the project. And in the end, this level of structured involvement might prove to be the project's most important quality because it supports a most critical Native networking theorem: as Tribes better understand information technologies and the opportunities they enable, and as Tribal leaders become involved in the decision-making process, the better are the chances that a Tribe will implement IT solutions that meets its needs in a culturally appropriate manner.

Wireless policy Issues

Wireless technologies provide Tribes with regulatory advantages over wire-line technologies. First of all, wireless telecommunications are entirely free from state-level regulation, which is not the case with cable or telephone-based technologies. Additionally, a June 2000 FCC Tribal Sovereignty Policy Statement implicitly extends Tribal sovereignty to the airspace and spectrum over Indian Country. So it is plausible (though untested) for a Tribe to assert its sovereignty over its airspace if it were able to provide a compelling justification to the FCC. With this in mind, the FCC Tribal Sovereignty Policy Statement awards Tribes the right to negotiate with the FCC, on a Tribe-by-Tribe basis, to gain access to experimental spectrum on their lands.

Because the HPWREN network utilizes unlicensed public spectrum, there have been no FCC regulatory impediments. As the SCTCA attempts to build on the network and expand high-speed wireless connectivity to the remaining reservations, it still plans to utilize unlicensed spectrum. Therefore, regulatory and policy issues regarding the use of spectrum should not pose any barriers to the project's completion. But if plans change and the SCTCA decides to utilize experimental parts of spectrum, SCTCA member Tribes should expect a long and expensive negotiation process with the FCC. Such a process would undoubtedly prove to be overly taxing on the SCTCA's limited grant funding. This dilemma faced by the SCTCA is a clear example of the significant need to streamline the FCC's negotiating process so that such necessary negotiations are made affordable to cash-strapped Tribes.

The Importance of Federal Funding for Pilot Projects

During a July 31 congressional hearing before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Research, Hans-Werner Braun discussed the NSF-funded HPWREN project and its impact upon the Pala, La Jolla and Rincon reservations. Braun also emphasized the need for continued federal funding for underserved communities:

Significant areas remain underdeveloped, including the sophistication of Internet applications and national network ubiquity fulfilling demanding performance requirements. For example, in rural America, even in technologically advanced areas such as San Diego, the notion of high- performance quickly falls apart outside major populated areas, where even cell phone systems often turn into an illusion of reachability. However, the technology needs of rural areas -- of perhaps no immediate business case to commercial service providers -- should not be underestimated. Stimulating data communications needs and solutions today can pay off significantly over time.

For HPWREN, there have already been opportunities of leveraging and partnerships, such as seen by the five million-dollar Hewlett-Packard award to the Southern California Tribal Chairman's Association -- more than twice the amount of the NSF HPWREN funding. The Hewlett-Packard grant aims to build upon the prototypes created with the NSF funding for learning centers in three reservations, and to create digital village settings within all 18 reservations of the County. The hope is that the evolution of these Hewlett-Packard activities -- which are largely led by the reservations themselves -- will eventually create a solid infrastructure that allows the Tribes to become self-sufficient.

Federal funding for pilot projects is designed to provide access, equity and diversity in public communications -- in this case, the Internet and telephone networks. It is not only a wise investment, but it's also necessary to ensure that the full benefits of democracy are made available to the economically and socially disadvantaged communities of Indian Country. Federal funding provided by NSF, the NTIA and other agencies are critical in deploying advanced telecommunications infrastructure to underserved rural and isolated communities -- especially Indian Country. Furthermore, federally-funded pilot projects produce an invaluable multiplier effect that encourages private sector investment and the evolution of these projects into sustainable public-private enterprises.

In the case of the HPWREN/NSF project, the results have not only produced cutting-edge Internet connectivity. They have also attracted the multi-million-dollar investment of Hewlett Packard that is expected to expand high-speed connectivity from three reservations to 18 reservations. The investment will also expand the range of educational, telemedicine, E-government and economic development opportunities that are enabled through broadband technology.

An Emerging Model for Broadband Deployment

The HPWREN project has provided a wealth of preliminary evidence to support broadband wireless technologies as being a viable solution to the networking needs of Indian Country. In addition, wireless broadband is far more affordable and easier to deploy than comparable wire-line technologies. Somewhat surprisingly, preliminary analysis suggests that these technologies are reliable, despite the topographic challenges of Southern California. The project has also provided a collaborative model that recognizes the importance of including Tribal leaders in the planning and implementation process.

However, the emergence of the HPWREN project as an effective model for meeting the IT needs of Indian Country would not have been possible without federal funding. Effective models such as this project are crucial for Tribes throughout Indian Country as they attempt to meet their own respective IT needs. But just as important, the federal government should also look to these models as valuable investments that fulfill their trust responsibility with Indian Nations by aiding Indian Nations in their quest for self-sufficiency.

Related Resources:


Tribal Digital Village

Hewlett-Packard Philanthropy Digital Village Program

National Congress of American Indians Digital Divide Task Force

FCC Indian Initiatives

Assessment of Technology Infrastructure in Native Communities, published by the Economic Development Administration


(c) Benton Foundation, 2001. Redistribution of this online publication -- both internally and externally -- is encouraged if it includes this message.
Past issues of Digital Beat are available online at The Digital Beat is a free online news service of the Benton Foundation's Communications Policy Program (

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