Folks driving along U.S. Highway 2 past the Town Pump will have noted construction going on next door. A sign proclaims it is the future site of Siyeh Communications, and last week groundbreaking ceremonies were held.
Project Director Joe Bremner explained the long and difficult process that led to this point in time.
“The Blackfeet Tribe has begun construction of a third phase of the Blackfeet Broadband Project,” he said. “The project objective is to bring broadband to the communities of the Blackfeet Reservation using a fiber optic network that will be wholly owned by the Tribe.”
He explained that in 2012 the Tribe entered into an agreement with CommunityTel to be included in an ARRA grant that provided a “middle mile” infrastructure that would span the Blackfeet Reservation. Later, the Tribal Council negotiated owner-ship of 12 “dark fibers” as part of that infrastructure through an IRU agreement.
“Today the Tribe has plans to put those fibers to use,” Bremner said. “The Blackfeet Tribe’s economic development arm, Siyeh Development Corporation, has been given the green light to make this a reality for the Tribe.”
Securing funding for the project was the next hurdle.
“The estimated cost of the buildout in the Browning community is approximately $6.5 million,” Bremner said. “Turtle Island Communications Inc. was contracted to design the system and engineer a plan for the buildout. Turtle Island Communication is 100% Indian owned, and they have experience assisting Tribes who played a major role in voicing concerns for changing FCC federal policy, which now allows Tribes the ability to access revenue that was once available for existing telecoms only and changing the guidelines for Tribes to seek ‘ETC’ (Eligible Telecommunication Carrier) status. This status allows the ETC provider to be eligible for subsidies from the Federal Communication Commission.”
More help came from a Minnesota Tribe.
“The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community from Minnesota has shown great support by donating $500,000 to assist us with the first phase of building out the fiber optic network,” he said. “A second request for another $500K from the Shakopee Nation was granted. With those donations we were able to purchase a pre-fab equipment shelter, materials (fiber, conduit, manholes) and all the state-of-the-art electronic equipment to begin our network.”
Today, there can only be one designated “wireless” carrier and one designated “wireline” carrier on Indian reservations.
“For many years, these telecom incumbents have failed to provide adequate infrastructure improvements on Indian lands. Although they are responsible for these improvements, we always seem to take the backseat while other smaller and desolate rural towns in their exchanges are being entirely upgraded. So it is time for us to stop waiting and start the process of improving our lives and the lives of our youth. Besides, who can better serve our members than ourselves? I have the confidence we can do this. We have already overcome huge obstacles up till now.” stated Siyeh Project Manager Bremner.
He explained that five years ago Ronan Telephone approached the Blackfeet and asked permission to write them into their application for a $13.5 million ARRA grant, which was to bring modern technology to the reservation and benefit the Tribe. A portion of that grant was to provide a fiber optic network system that would span the entire reservation from East Glacier to the eastern border and beyond, into Cut Bank and then north through Del Bonita and then to an existing communication office while providing training and new equipment to the Tribe.
“The focus was the Tribe was to maintain the system with high paying jobs,” Bremner said. “None of that ever prevailed, but with changing technology comes new regulations. The FCC has changed upload and download minimum speed requirements and focused on rural areas, including Indian Country. There was some doubt whether the incumbent had the capacity to provide those speeds in the Browning Exchange, and that led to a discussion about what it would take to utilize the 12 dark fibers to which the Tribe had access.”
One option was to build out Siyeh’s own network, but that didn’t qualify the Tribe to become an “ETC” carrier. Siyeh then turned to the incumbent and requested data from the Browning Exchange. It was discovered that the incumbent was receiving $1.7-2 million per year from just the Browning Exchange.
“This led Siyeh to ask when are we getting upgraded?” said Bremner. “That became a wake-up call. The answers just created more questions.“
Ultimately this led to the acquisition of the incumbent’s exchange. With that purchase, the problems they were having with the internet now became Siyeh’s.
“With all of these dynamics taking place, it brought us to a juncture,” Bremner said. “Where are our headquarters going to be located? We then painstakingly secured an EDA grant after the third attempt. After five years of going through the processes, we have finally embarked on the construction of our headquarters. Siyeh Communications is the merging of Starlink Cable and Oki Communications.”
Bremner said the project was nothing short of a total team effort, including TICOM – Mel & Madonna Yawaki, Engineering firm and grant writing; Siyeh Corporation – Dennis Fitzpatrick, CEO, Joe Bremner, Project Manager, Lisa VandenBos, CFO; Siyeh Board of Directors, George HeavyRunner, Chairman, Debra Davis, Vice, Robert Miller, Ted Hall, KWebb Galbreath; Blackfeet Tribe; Blackfeet Planning, Cheryl Reevis, Director; Siyeh Communication, Mike Sheard, General Mgr., Stan Spotted Wolf, Combination Tech, Lockley Bremner, Wireless Mgr., Aaron Pepion, Tech, David Cree Medicine, Video Tech, Danielle Connelly and Rachel Guerrero, Customer Serv-ice.
“The overall goal of Siyeh Communications is to provide high speed internet to every home within the Browning Exchange,” Bremner stated. “Placing fiber optic in every home will provide an opportunity to offer other services, including VOIP and video content, known as the “triple play package.”