Tohono O’odham partners with wireless internet provider to connect tribal citizens

By: - September 8, 2023 10:50 am

A wireless internet antenna on a home in a Tohono O’odham community. Photo courtesy of Baicells

Tohono O’odham citizens now have access to wireless internet options thanks to a partnership the Tohono O’odham Utility Authority established with Baicells Technologies to provide high-speed broadband connectivity to villages across the largely rural Tohono O’odham Nation. 

“Understanding our remote location and lack of service by any existing carriers, we knew it was up to us to address this issue of broadband access,” Kristan Johnson, the operations manager for the Tohono O’odham Utility Authority (TOUA), said in a press release. TOUA has been offering internet services since 1998. 

The Tohono O’odham Nation is 4,460 square miles, about the size of Connecticut, and roughly 28,000 Tohono O’odham people live on its tribal lands in southwestern Arizona. 

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The Tohono O’odham Nation is divided into 11 districts that are made up of 72 villages. Due to the rural conditions, the tribe has faced challenges bringing access to high-speed internet in many parts of tribal land.

The tribe has largely relied on simple WiFi connectivity set up in limited locations, and residents relied on internet speeds as low as 2 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload, which often left the community unable to access critical service. 

With the help of federal funding, the TOUA has been able to overhaul and upgrade its infrastructure, and has been able to build out its network plan through wireless connection.

TOUA reached out to Baicells to partner with them to get the network established, but according to the press release, the tribe is the one behind the wheel because they planned, deployed and now operate the network.

“We have experience and a track record of solving these types of challenges for our communities,” Johnson said. “A private network that we can manage on our own was a great fit since we are very accustomed to operating our own infrastructure.” 

The TOUA already operates key utility infrastructures like electricity and water, Johnson said. 

“In today’s age, internet access is just another utility,” she added.

The tribe launched its project to build the wireless network in 2020, according to the press release, and started testing Baicells technology in 2021. Since then, the tribe successfully deployed a dual-band private 4G LTE network. 

Johnson said that they are still working to build out a fiber optic network, which is expected to be completed in 2024, and the wireless system allows customers to have access to the internet until then.

Workers prepare to install a wireless internet antenna on a home in a Tohono O’odham community. Photo courtesy of Baicells

The Tohono O’odham Nation has approximately 50 base stations set up across its land, and it has the potential to serve an estimated 3,000 homes. 

“The primary objective of this initiative is to enhance communications and access to content and educational services, with the high-speed connectivity provided by this network,” Minchul Ho, Americas CEO at Baicells, said in a press release. 

“Baicells core mission is empowering unserved communities and bridging the digital divide with affordable solutions,” Ho added. “The success of the partnership with the TOUA showcases the company’s dedication and commitment to this mission.”

According to Baicells, the Tohono O’odham Nation is able to maintain tribal sovereignty over its network infrastructure by leveraging a private LTE network. 

The Tohono O’odham Utility Authority was interested in getting service across the community sooner rather than later, said Tony Eigen, vice president of global marketing for Baicells.

“They knew they could do this with a wireless kind of network,” Eigen said, and Baicells is helping the Tribe get connected through the wireless technology they provide.

Eigen said Baicells went out to the Tohono O’odham Nation this summer to work with the TOUA to set up more towers in their network, and the tribes’ choice to go wireless gave them the ability to get their communities connected faster.

Since the project launched, Eigen said they’ve been able to cover a large portion of the community, unlike fiber optics, which takes longer to build out and costs much more.

Customers will have a transmitter set up on their house that talks to the radio transmitters and then broadcasts WiFi in the house, Eigden said, which is vastly different from digging and laying down fiber cables. 

For example, a mile of fiber costs roughly $5,000, but connecting a similar amount of endpoints using wireless networks costs only about $500.

“The cost is very much based on the population density that you’re trying to serve,” he added. “There is major differences in those two approaches.”

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Shondiin Silversmith
Shondiin Silversmith

Shondiin Silversmith is an award-winning Native journalist based on the Navajo Nation. Silversmith has covered Indigenous communities for more than 10 years, and covers Arizona's 22 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations, as well as national and international Indigenous issues.

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