3 Native American tribes use Nokia tech to bring 4G and 5G to remote towns in four states

Tribes in Oklahoma, North and South Dakota, and California will use hardware originally designed for private 5G networks.

Standing Rock Sioux tower

Standing Rock Telecommunications will expand its existing wireless service to take advantage of new spectrum and funding from the CARES act.

Image: Nokia

Native American tribes are using Nokia technology and federal funding to bring high-speed internet access to students, entrepreneurs and doctors in remote communities. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North and South Dakota and the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes in Oklahoma are building out networks to provide 4.9G/LTE and 5G private wireless access. 

This expansion started in early 2020 when the FCC offered the unused Educational Broadband Service spectrum to Native American tribes. Four hundred federally recognized tribes applied for and won the use of the spectrum, representing 12,000 square miles and more than 30,000 people. 

The next piece of the puzzle was broadband funding from the CARES Act in March 2020.

Reggie Wassana, governor for the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, said the tribe used the CARES Act funding to build three cellular towers in the region. 

"It has not only allowed us to provide internet to the tribal emergency programs, but also to the tribal citizens within our service area," Wassana said in a press release.

SEE: Future of 5G: Projections, rollouts, use cases, and more (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Fred McLaughlin, general manager of Standing Rock Telecommunications, said this funding was critical because many people can't afford the initial start-up costs to build these networks.

Once the spectrum was secured, the next step was to build out the infrastructure, which is where Nokia and NewCore Wireless come in. Nokia is extending next-generation private wireless to parts of North and South Dakota, Oklahoma and California in partnership with NewCore Wireless, a company that works with rural carriers. 

Albert Kangas, general manager and COO at NewCore, said that one factor that made the rollout go quickly was the fact that the project used existing hardware.

"Once the spectrum was awarded, the equipment was already available, and we stood up the network before the end of the year," he said. 

The 2.5Ghz band of spectrum offered by the Tribal EBS program can be found in most mobile phones, telephone switching equipment and add-on devices in the market today. Access to more than 100MHz of that spectrum is well suited for 4G, and also can provide a viable transition into 5G in the future.

The Standing Rock tribe's telecommunications company will provide the new broadband service to customers. The wireless operator didn't have enough spectrum to provide broadband and 5G before this new spectrum was made available.

Kangas said this midband spectrum is optimal for 5G, and 70% of the available EBS spectrum was not being used before the FCC made it available to the tribes. 

"Midband is the sweet spot because it can be deployed economically, it has range and speed with it as well," he said. "You need the right spectrum so the economics work."

He said that these new deployments can be used for both 4G and 5G connectivity, depending on how the tribes decide to use it. 

Repurposing existing technology

Ed Cholerton, senior vice president of customer experience in the North America market at Nokia, said the technology was originally designed for private 5G installations. 

"It's a really a cool combination of good government here, bringing money in to help people and NewCore enabling that and making it happen," he said. 

The tribes will use Nokia's NDAC solution to expand access, Cholerton said, which can be deployed gradually and doesn't require a million-dollar investment to get started.

"If you had to amortize the back end-costs against an installation of three to 10 towers, you'd never be able to make it work," he said. "With NDAC, you can do very small deployments and continue to add on over time," he said.

 The Nokia platform was originally designed for manufacturers who wanted edge compute capabilities for a private network. 

"The government is helping Native American communities in this case but it could also help other rural communities and many urban communities that are underserved as well," he said. 

Kangas said he expects other tribal communities to launch connectivity providers now that the spectrum and funding is available. 

"It's also possible that we'll see a coalition of tribes that will share networks so the devices can be used wherever customers travel," he said.

John Pretty Bear, councilman for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's Cannonball District, said in a press release that this initiative with Nokia and NewCore will go a long way to leveling the technology playing field for the tribe. 

"This is critical for the well-being of our people, especially during the pandemic where information about mass testing or vaccinations needs to be shared in real time," he said.

Also see

By Veronica Combs

Veronica Combs is a senior writer at TechRepublic. For more than 10 years, she has covered technology, healthcare, and business strategy. In addition to her writing and editing expertise, she has managed small and large teams at startups and establis...