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A Native American tribe created its own ingenious wireless education network

The Lower Brule Sioux Tribe partnered with a Silicon Valley nonprofit to bridge the last mile in internet connectivity.

A Native American tribe created its own ingenious wireless education network
Image Source: oppagenda / Twitter

When the ongoing pandemic hit the United States and certain regions went into lockdown, schools were one of the institutions to take the biggest hit. Classes quickly went virtual and concerns about access to digital devices and the internet grew. A Native American tribe in South Dakota, however, managed to develop an ingenious wireless education network to make sure none of its students lost out on valuable school time. With new technology, the efforts of a California non-profit organization, an influx of federal CARES Act funding, and "a little luck," The Lower Brule Sioux Tribe has created a low-cost solution to the tribe’s computer and internet needs, Argus Leader reports.



The tribe has been working on its ambitious plan to build its own wireless internet network since early June. The plan is to broadcast a high-speed, wireless internet signal across the Lower Brule reservation using digital radio waves. The waves would have to travel roughly 207 square miles. The network is similar to the ones cell phones use to communicate with each other. When it was launched at the end of July in a limited capacity, the network became the first-of-its-kind in South Dakota. This solved the tribe's longstanding need to secure internet access not only for educators and students, but businesses or individual tribal members who want to use the internet as well.



Former Tribal Chairman Boyd Gourneau, who left office in early October, said of the initiative, "Everything we’re doing is all with the vision of being self-sufficient and not depending on the government." The Lower Brule Tribal Council thus partnered with Silicon Valley nonprofit MuralNet to plan and build its wireless internet network. The partnership came out of a chance meeting the chairman had with a MuralNet executive at a conference for tribal chairmen before the pandemic began. Mariel Triggs, MuralNet’s CEO, said the tribe was essentially building its own cellular network. They were able to secure their own federal license to utilize the 2.5GhZ band of radio wave spectrum and put wireless internet technology to effective use, which is faster and far more affordable than laying down fiber optic cables to connect rural homes to the internet.



At present, the tribe is paying for its network through funding from the CARES Act, the federal coronavirus relief package. Now, the challenge is to keep expanding the network in a sustainable manner. While plans to do so are in the pipeline, each of the Lower Brule School’s 300 or so students now have access to a device (given to them by the federal Bureau of Indian Education) and the internet. New Lower Brule Tribal Chairman Clyde Estes affirmed, "I think we’re really ahead of the game. I believe it will be a great thing because there are a lot of people that need to do business online. Maybe we can teach adults and elders who have never done internet stuff before how they could access their financial information or keep up with current news and events going on."


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