Indian Country Gets Wired: Karuk Tribe Brings Broadband to the Boondocks

Judging from reader response to the first installment of this series on bringing broadband Internet to rural northern California, there are a lot of folks out there not getting the Internet they need, let alone want.

There are many interconnected reasons for this, but if they could all be narrowed down to one cause, it would be the notion there are so few people (read: ratepayers) per square mile in rural areas, that spending money on infrastructure to provide true broadband service is a poor investment.

That means communities and/or individuals in unserved and underserved rural areas must go to extraordinary measures to get services that are taken for granted in the Bay Area, Sacramento, and even Redding.

This story is about one rural community in northern California that took matters into its own hands and got the job done.

On Oct. 16, the Karuk Tribe held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the completion of a project that will bring broadband service to Orleans, an unincorporated village in Humboldt County.

Orleans is roughly 30 miles due east of the coast and 80 miles due south of the Oregon border. To get there from Redding by car, it’s a three-hour drive via Highway 299 and State Route 96, also known as the Bigfoot Scenic Byway.

That’s how remote Orleans is. Bigfoot hangs out there.

Drone's eye view of Orleans, with the Karuk Tribe's brand new broadband internet wifi tower in the foreground. The photo is by EnerTribe President Forest James, who's also a professional photographer.

Drone’s eye view of Orleans, with the Karuk Tribe’s brand new broadband Internet wifi tower in the foreground. The photo is by EnerTribe President Forest James, who’s also a professional photographer.

It’s one of those little jewels of a town you occasionally encounter touring rural California, set in a hidden, verdant valley divided by the Klamath River; single-family homes, businesses, schools, churches and a post office scattered along the banks.

The Karuk named it Panamnik and hunted and fished this stretch of the Klamath in relative peace for centuries before Western settlement ended the way of life and almost the very existence of California’s indigenous peoples.

Today, the Karuk Tribe numbers 6,115 members, including 3,431 who are full-blooded, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Many have remained in their traditional tribal homelands in northern California and southern Oregon; tribal headquarters is in Happy Camp, 45 miles north of Orleans. Neighboring tribes along the Klamath include the Yurok and Modoc.

Orleans is home to 640 people, roughly half of whom are white, one-third American Indian or Alaskan Native, one-tenth Latino or Hispanic, and one-tenth mixed-race. There are 140 family households with a total of 54 children under age 18. Per capita income is $19,400, compared to the state average of $29,000. The economy includes small business owners serving the local community and tourists, education, healthcare, and tribal service positions.

It’s typical of many small, unincorporated rural communities that have been bypassed by the information superhighway.

At least, that was the situation when Karuk Tribe Information Technology Directer Eric Cutright arrived in 2009. Tribal members in Orleans were quick to inform him telephone service in the area was so bad, it couldn’t be depended on for calling 9-1-1, let alone accessing the Internet. The local fire department, forest service office and tribal community services office had virtually no access to broadband.

Karuk Tribe IT Director Eric Cutright was instrumental in bringing broadband internet to Orleans.

Karuk Tribe IT Director Eric Cutright was instrumental in bringing broadband Internet to Orleans.

The only option besides dial-up was satellite Internet, which doesn’t provide the speed or reliability of terrestrial broadband and is prohibitively expensive for many rural residents and communities.

“The need for broadband in rural communities is the same as it is anywhere else,” Cutright explained to me via email. “Economic development, public safety, healthcare and education.”

Seeing that need unfulfilled, he set out to do something about it, with the full support of the Karuk Tribe and the Orleans community. Six years later, the project is bearing its first fruit.

This week in Orleans, the medical clinic, elementary school, community center and other “anchor institutions” will begin receiving broadband Internet via four miles of newly laid fiberoptic cable and a 90-ft tall tower which broadcasts a robust outdoor wifi signal to receivers set across the valley. Download speeds range as high as 100 mbps—roughly 10 times the speed of satellite and 100 times the maximum available DSL speed. Total cost for the project was $1.3 million.

Now when students go online they’ll literally be up to speed with their peers in Eureka. Emergency services will be just a click away. Patients and healthcare providers at the medical clinic will be able to videoconference with out-of-the area specialists. Free high-speed Internet access will be available at the community center.

Eventually service will be available to residents and businesses for fees comparable to current broadband market rates.

The process of bringing broadband to Orleans was complex and arduous. Cutright was able to take advantage of a social network in existence long before Facebook was a gleam in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye, the myriad connections between northern California’s diverse indigenous tribes that have been maintained for generations.

One such connection is Forest James, a member of the Tolowa Tribe of the Smith River Rancheria, located in the far northwestern corner of California. James is president of EnerTribe, a native-owned and operated project management company specializing in broadband Internet development. He’s also the owner of Earthprint Technologies, which provided the wireless tower and receivers used in Orleans.

The tall guy is EnerTribe President Forest James, the lady is EnerTribe Director of Permits Penny Eckert, flanked by Eric Cutright and members of the Karuk and Yurok Tribe IT departments.

The tall guy is EnerTribe President Forest James, the lady is EnerTribe Director of Permits Penny Eckert, flanked by Eric Cutright and members of the Karuk and Yurok Tribe IT departments.

James began focusing on broadband 8 years ago, after being contracted to conduct a survey on Internet access on Indian reservations in the United States and Canada. He discovered a near total lack of broadband service for those communities. The reason? In most cases, the local telecomm provider, known as the “incumbent,” considered extending services unprofitable.

After consulting with Cutright and the Karuk Tribe in 2009, James did what any other enterprising businessperson would do and applied for a grant, in this case $1.1 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Connect program.

It turned out to be a crash-course in the ultra-competitive telecommunications industry and the byzantine regulatory apparatus that attempts to govern it.

It’s true that incumbent telecommunications companies, particularly larger ones such as Comcast, AT&T and Verizon, aren’t inclined to pay for the infrastructure necessary to deliver services to rural locations. Yet they’re also reluctant to give up any unserved or underserved territory to newcomers, lest the newcomer’s superior services overlap with their own, leading to an exodus of customers.

It’s a legitimate business complaint, and most grant applications must pass muster with the California Public Utilities Commission, which allows incumbent providers to challenge proposed projects.

It can be a frustrating process, says broadband advocate Catherine Emerson, from Chico State University’s Geographical Information Center. She currently consults with two major consortiums seeking to provide broadband to rural northern California.

“The difficulties, the hurdles, lie in the process,” she explained via email. “Once an application is submitted, it is open to challenge. Once a challenge has been submitted, it pretty much sounds the death knell for the application.”

“There are a few diamonds in the rough,” she added. “Some applicants have opted to submit applications for planned infrastructure in areas where there is no service, save dial-up, hence no one to even challenge an application.”

Consider the Karuk Tribe’s broadband project in Orleans a diamond in the rough. Verizon, which provides local telephone and DSL, did not object to the plan, which connects Orleans with Siskiyou Telephone’s fiberoptic broadband network in Somes Bar. After the CPUC approved the grant in 2011, Siskiyou Telephone even agreed to build out its infrastructure to accommodate the project — at no cost — other than the fees it will receive from the tribe for providing the connection. The project also enjoyed full support from Humboldt County.

“Community Connect really helped us build the foundation, I didn’t know what I was in for!” James said.

EnerTribe tackled the project’s logistics, obtaining the proper permits from local, state and federal agencies, contracting vendors to lay fiberoptic cable and install the broadcast tower, and coordinating the work between contractors.

Building on that experience, EnerTribe, the Karuk Tribe and the Yurok Tribe have now partnered to bring broadband to the unserved communities of Weitchpec and Orick and the underserved areas of Johnsons, Trinidad and Wautec.

Funded by a $6.6 million grant from the California Advanced Services Fund and $6.2 million from the tribes, the $12.8 million Klamath River Rural Broadband Initiative will deploy more than 100 miles of fiberoptic cable throughout the region. Eventually, service will reach Siskiyou, Del Norte and Shasta Counties.

That’s a considerably larger project than bringing broadband to Orleans, but from small things big things grow. I asked Eric Cutright if the Karuk Tribe’s success might serve as a blueprint for other unserved and underserved rural areas, such as my own community in eastern Shasta County.

“I think that other small rural communities may apply our blueprint to their own situations,” he said. “But in my experience, every community is in a unique enough position geographically, socially and politically that every solution is unique.”

He recommends starting by finding allies that share the same goal, including local broadband providers, and learning the landscape. The next episode of this series on rural broadband will attempt to do just that for Shasta County.

EnerTribe President Forest James concurs that developing local interest is paramount.

“The reason projects are successful is because of the community. If you don’t love it, it won’t happen.”

R.V. Scheide

R.V. Scheide is an award-winning journalist who has covered news, politics, music, arts and culture in Northern California for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in the Tenderloin Times, Sacramento News & Review, Reno News & Review, Chico News & Review, North Bay Bohemian, San Jose Metro, SF Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, Alternet, Boston Phoenix, Creative Loafing and Counterpunch, among many other publications. His honors include winning the California Newspaper Publishers Association’s Freedom of Information Act and best columnist awards as well as best commentary from the Society of Professional Journalists, California chapter. Mr. Scheide welcomes your comments and story tips. Contact him at RVScheide@anewscafe.com..

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