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July 26, 2011

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New Technology Revolutionizes Yurok Tribal Communications

The future has arrived at the Yurok Reservation in Northern California.  Historically the entire reservation, including every public safety agency, were forced to share a single T1 line causing communications bottlenecks and slower than dial-up connections.  Now, the Yurok community has a dedicated public safety line in order to access criminal databases and will soon have the ability to conduct live video training with their fire fighters, support clinics that can perform virtual telemedicine, and implement an emergency services plan that is completely self-sufficient.   The new TV White Space technology and the backbone network being built to support it will transform the Yurok community’s public safety communications system, ultimately paving the way for other Tribes to follow.

Carlson Wireless engineered one of the first software-defined radios two years ago, the sole purpose of which was to bring broadband to remote locations using the unconventional TV white space.  The first benefactors Carlson focused on were Native Americans.  It has long been the company’s mission to support rural communities with affordable communication solutions that work well in challenging terrain.  Now, with the advent of this new spectrum, there is an opportunity to make great strides within the uncharted territories of Indian reservations.

Just north of Carlson’s offices in Arcata is the largest Native American tribe in the state of California.  The Yurok reservation spans over 44-miles of mountainous heavily forested land presenting many signal obstacles.

Jim Norton, Broadband Manager for the Yurok Tribe said, “We call our project the YurokConnect Project. It came about essentially as a result of years of frustration experienced by our IT Director, Paul Romero, in trying to deliver Internet, networking, and telecommunications services throughout the Yurok offices and education facilities that are spread across the reservation—and in particular, the Public Safety offices.”

The project must be able to serve not only public safety entities, but also provide Internet access for businesses and tribal offices on the reservation, as well as the majority of the Internet starved population on and surrounding the reservation.
 
“All data access at this point is via our point to point wireless links through our main offices, where we have a single T1 for the Internet.  That is all shared by up to 100 other computers and users at any given time. So during the day, for any kind of Internet access or inter-office contact, we see dial-up speeds. We can’t support things like online conferencing or training of any sort, particularly if it requires a video feed—we just don’t have the bandwidth,” stated Norton.  “Not only are our regular operations affected, but also our Public Safety.”

In researching the possibilities to accomplish this several years ago, it became apparent that older technologies such as directional antennas, T1, or satellite, would be cost prohibitive or suffer unreliable connection.  Nevertheless, progress was needed and Romero’s team proceeded to acquire grants and begin the process of building towers.  Then TV White Space and Carlson Wireless changed everything.

When the project was first conceived, the White Space technology didn’t exist. Everyone remembers when television broadcasting went from analog to digital a couple years ago.  This transition freed up spectrum that is now being reused primarily in rural areas.  It allows a much better signal propagation over rugged, vegetated terrain. The Yurok reservation is the perfect poster child for that description. Carlson saw the opportunity to help and offered an unprecedented and revolutionary solution.

“Let me give you an idea of the impact that this technology has on our project,” said Norton.  “We had projected being able to serve approximately 70-80% of the reservation and the people on it with the existing technologies; each location would require a site visit by our technician and then the installation of external, directional antennas oriented at the towers, and more—The typical type of telecommunications install that you see with cable or telephone.”

Norton continued, “The RuralConnect IP is a game changer for us. The near line-of-sight requirements of the other technologies, as well as the antenna requirements, are significantly reduced. The frequencies have a much better terrain following capability, and a punch for the dense foliage that we have here—one that the other technologies just can’t match.” 

But here’s the real kicker: The new customer experience for most of the Yurok subscribers will be completely transformed.  Norton said “With Carlson’s RuralConnect IP, the customer gets a pre-configured little box, takes it home, sets it on their desk, attaches the antenna, plugs it into the wall and into their computer port, and they’re on. Now that makes a huge difference, not only to our customers, but also to us. It certainly cuts our cost.”

On January 26, 2011, the FCC granted the experimental license allowing this project to move forward. The FCC’s Office of Native Affairs, headed by Geoffrey Blackwell, was instrumental in pushing it through.

“The FCC moved mountains for us, so we could get an experimental license that allows us to use this bandwidth, this new White Space—tremendous cooperation there, and you don’t hear that about government very often,” said Norton.

The Yurok project is occurring in phases in order to reach the entire population scattered in and around the reservation, with an expected completion date of summer 2011.

Recently, the Yurok Connect Project was able to acquire a dedicated line from the department of justice to their Klamath Public Safety office. They use this primarily for accessing criminal databases.  It cannot be used for any other type of communication.  But the most fundamental and arguably the most valuable application of the White Space technology is that they will be able to connect every office and tie them into the new network, enabling the offices to exchange information between their computers quickly, securely, and dependably.

Another of the first links installed will serve the Klamath Fire Station.  Finally they will have a faster more reliable Internet connection in order to do live video training with their fire fighters.

Norton clarifies, “These folks are all volunteers, they work during the day, and they come in the evening to get training.  It works much better if they have a solid connection to the training resources.”

When it comes to emergency management, during a major catastrophe their towers will be fully autonomous. Yurok communications will be completely independent and capable of operating for days off grid via broadband reaching everyone on the reservation. It won’t be necessary to rely on outside resources for communications. With the advent of this new system, it will provide a vital resource to managing virtually any kind of disaster imaginable.

“Right now the plan for our new emergency services coordinator is that, in the event of a disaster, he’ll take the mobile command trailer out to one of our new towers.  It’s up above anything that comes along, such as flooding from the river.  Wherever they station the mobile command center, our towers will be able to see it and be able to communicate with it. They’ll have power from our generators that they can tie into if necessary,” explained Norton.

The reservation also has two clinics, both of which currently have reasonable access via T1. However, this new deployment will allow them to conduct virtual telemedicine. They’ll be able to exchange files between them, as well as Tribal members.  Patients will be able to go into the clinic and be online live with doctors in other areas. That saves tremendous amounts of travel time, not to mention the stress on medical staff having to reach remote locations to see their patients.  In many cases, the teleconferencing that will be enabled with this new technology can be life-saving.

Funding for the Yurok Connect Project has come from a variety of sources, including the California Consumer Protection Foundation, the California Emergency Management Agency, Public Safety Interoperability (PSIC) grants, and the Infrastructure Protection Grants unit in Sacramento. But the bulk of the funding came from the USDA Rural Utilities Service Community Connect grant program.

Norton extols, “We’ve had amazing support from our tribal council and the membership at large; but when it comes to funding, I can’t believe how people have been really on board to help us.“  Norton and his team hope to be able to expand the system, upgrade, and then reach out and help other local tribes who need the vital communication services as well.  And it doesn’t stop with helping just other tribes.

“One of our partners is the County of Del Norte- part of the reservation lies in the south portion of the county.  We have co-located some of our equipment in the County’s communications hub,” Norton said.  “When our expansion allows us to link into the networks of different regions, we then would be able to provide emergency backup communications services for the County’s emergency responders in the event that their primary services are compromised.  In an area where such redundant services aren’t available, that’s a very cool concept.”

Carlson Wireless commends the Yurok Tribe for being the first to use a new technology that reuses vacant TV airwaves for broadband. Not only is it a positive proactive step for the Yurok Tribe but also for other tribes around the nation, because it demonstrates how implementing broadband on tribal lands can be funded, deployed and managed.