Peninsula tribal representatives tell of struggles to get high-speed internet

PORT ANGELES — Efforts to improve broadband access for Olympic Peninsula tribes were spotlighted in a Broadband Action Team meeting in Port Angeles.

Several West End tribes lack the infrastructure needed for reliable high-speed internet, a marked disadvantage in a 21st century economy, panelists said Friday.

Crystal Hottowe, a Makah grant writer who has been working on broadband issues in Neah Bay for five years, said broadband infrastructure is the “name of the game.”

“Without it, we cannot do anything,” Hottowe said at the Broadband Action Team gathering at the Elwha Klallam Heritage Center.

“We’re dead in the water.”

Tribes are not alone in their quest for more reliable internet access.

Many rural communities throughout the country are without broadband, prompting U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, and other lawmakers to introduce legislation that would help level the playing field.

“In Olympia, we kind of equate rural broadband with the rural electrification in the 20th century,” said state Rep. Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles.

“Rural broadband is the next great challenge of the 21st century. And it’s the way to equalize our economy, we believe, across the state.”

The Quinault Nation and Makah Tribe have microwave communications systems that transmit video, audio and other data on radio waves using a series of towers.

The microwave systems, while faster than dial-up in most cases, have been less reliable than broadband, tribal members said.

“We internally on the reservation have had some issues for years with community members having access to adequate broadband connectivity,” said Scott Reynvaan, economic development specialist with the Quinault Nation.

“This microwave system was adequate for the Nation for a time. But now that the membership is demanding it, they want adequate access for broadband connectivity and infrastructure that can be tied into cellular phone tablets, that can be tied into renewable energy, wind farms and other projects.”

Reynvaan said it is common for Quinault officials to drive nearly 45 minutes to submit grant applications to state and federal governments because of slow internet speeds on the reservation.

The Quinault, which operates a resort and casino in Ocean Shores, is one of the largest employers in Grays Harbor County.

“The Nation has a responsibility to its members, to its employees and to its partners to be able to help find some solutions to some of these problems,” Reynvaan said.

Hoh Tribal Council member Enrrique Barragan said students on the small reservation in West Jefferson County have made trips to Forks to complete homework assignments because of a lack of reliable internet at home.

“We’re just trying to catch up to the rest of the world,” Barragan said. “We’re a very small tribe. It’s been difficult.”

The Hoh Tribe is working with partners to build microwave technology to augment the existing cable service on the reservation, Barragan said.

In August 2017, dignitaries including U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Mountlake Terrace, gathered in Neah Bay for a ribbon-cutting on CenturyLink’s high-speed broadband internet to the Makah reservation.

“We’ve still run into issues as far as what is available for residents,” Hottowe said. “That’s been very frustrating.”

Some residents who live in outlying areas are affected by dead stops, or disruptions in the broadband service.

The Makah tribe is still in talks with CenturyLink on a lease for the broadband infrastructure.

“As far as our administration goes, we have a microwave system and we have been updating and expanding our microwave system,” Hottowe said.

“And what we have decided to do is take a step back and look at how we might be able to expand our infrastructure utilizing different grants.”

At the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, the administrative buildings are served by fast and reliable fiber, Information Technology Director Ken Giersch said.

“In some regards, Elwha’s kind of an outlier in some of the issues,” Giersch said.

“We certainly still have some broadband issues, but we were fortunate as far as our tribal campus.

“We have both PUD fiber and Wave terminating at our justice/data center now.”

The communications tower on the Lower Elwha reservation has become an “anchor” for West End communities and tribes that use the tower for microwave transmission, Giersch said.

“A lot of people west have tapped into that [tower] as an option to at least get some semblance of high-speed, at least for city or government functions,” he said.

“But residential is still a huge hurdle.”

Giersch added that broadband “tanks” immediately west of Port Angeles.

The Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe has high-speed broadband and its own communications network: Jamestown Networks.

The tribal enterprise partnered with Northwest Open Access Network, or NoaNet, in 2013 to provide advanced telecommunications to customers around the state, Jamestown Networks Accounts Manager Debbie Madden said.

“We’ve got a vast array of quality broadband products and services to bring to bear — very, very focused on the rural community,” Madden said.

“Between ourselves and our wholesaler, NoaNet, we want to bring broadband to the under-served and unserved areas in rural areas of Washington state.”

The Broadband Action Team gathering was hosted by Andrea Alexander of the Makah Tribe and Tribal Technology Training (T3).

The list of speakers included Lower Elwha Klallam Chairwoman Frances Charles, Jamestown S’Klallam Chairman Ron Allen, Forks Mayor Tim Fletcher and Peninsula College President Luke Robins.

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at rollikainen@peninsuladailynews.com.

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