In this podcast episode, we speak with Mariel Triggs, CEO of MuralNet. Nearly half of those living in rural communities in the US still lack broadband access. On tribal lands, the problem is more acute with nearly two-thirds lacking access to adequate Internet.
MuralNet helps bridge this digital divide by providing infrastructure, consulting, financial, and educational resources so that tribal nations and tribally-controlled organizations can build their own networks. Learn more by visiting muralnet.org
Pete Pizzutillo: So thank you for bringing to there, and it’s an interesting mission that you’re on. So you mentioned breaking down this digital divide into three areas at a little bit more granular level. I think that’s interesting, because I haven’t dug into the urban side of it as well, but that certainly would be a topic to get into. And rural, as you mentioned, is kind of a generalized term. So you mentioned the tribal areas or regions are twice as bad. So how many folks, or how many people is that affecting in the U.S.? Do you have a sense of the population that is affected both from the student side as well as the working folks that are outside the digital economy as well as the anger institutions that are supporting those communities? How big is that problem?
Closing the Tribal Digital Divide and Preserving Cultures
Mariel Triggs: We’re definitely talking millions. But I actually now shy away from quantifying any sort of issue in rural or tribal America as a number of people, and I would instead would want to address it as a number of peoples. What I mean by that is number of distinct cultures who are affected by this lack of connectivity. I think there’s about a little over 600 tribal lands that are recognized by the federal government. How many of those areas don’t have access, and then how many cultures within those areas that have been struggling to survive because of the intentional onslaught of the federal government for the last couple 100 years to destroy them, how many of those situations are we dealing with?
Mariel Triggs: This is another reason why tribal is separate. We’re not just talking about access for one person, we’re talking about language revitalization. We’re talking about two generations who’ve been taken away into boarding schools and then trying to undo the damage that was done as their way of life was targeted and letting them make their way, giving them the tools that the rest of the United States, for the most part, has to self-determine how their next generation will walk into the future as the elders who are the last native speakers of their language are starting to die out. So that, we’re talking in the hundreds. That is something that is the urgency then and the way I would want to look at it.
Pete Pizzutillo: No, it’s interesting, it frames it up in a more interesting perspective, right? You’re talking about preserving cultures and communities in total, not just the subset of our generic American community. Then some restitution, or restoration if you will, that needs to undo some of the policies that these folks have been subject to for hundreds of years. That is interesting as well. A couple things that I wanted to dig into, most recently you were testifying at the FCC around the EBS priority. I think you recognized the FCC has recognized that tribal nations should get some priority on there. But you had a specific perspective on why that wasn’t enough, and maybe you can frame up what the FCC’s laid out and what you think would be improvements to, or what you would like to see amended to that policy.
Advocacy for Tribal Nation Priority Access to Educational Broadband Service Spectrum
Mariel Triggs: It started a week and a half ago between February 3rd and August 3rd. Tribal governments and tribal entities that are majority owned by the tribal government and tribal councils can apply for unlicensed spectrum over their lands in the 2.5 gigahertz range. There’re some caveats on that. There’s the issue where they have to be an eligible entity, which means they have to be a federally recognized tribe. There’s 574 federally recognized tribes right now, and there’s many state recognized tribes and some tribes that aren’t along that path at all. It’s a very unique situation. It’s like the native Hawaiian, who are not currently federally recognized. Then you have that they have to eligible land, which means that they’ve said the Alaska tribal villages, they’ve said federally recognized tribal lands, they’ve said native Hawaiian homelands, and that they have to be local and not rural.
Mariel Triggs: So it’s interesting, you’re looking at what is it that the FCC’s trying to do? They are pushing this idea of giving the local tribal governments control of the airwaves of their own lands that aren’t licensed. So there’s also this protection of incumbents happening. The idea that if someone was given this spectrum, and you’ve got to remember with EBS spectrum that it was given away to these schools back in the mid-70s and 80s. The spectrum was given over your own land. It’s not being used usually because in order to meet build out requirements what the schools or their lessees did was essentially go to the most densely populated areas and build there. What ends up happening is protection of the incumbents in that system actually locks out a lot of people. If you are in one of these licensed areas and your license is essentially a 35-mile radius circle, say around Santa Fe, and you have to cover 30% of the population, that’s wonderful for folks in Santa Fe.
Mariel Triggs: When we do the network maps and planning we can just hook a few cells, cover that metropolitan area to get the 30% that I need, but then what happens to all the edge communities? The northern Pueblos? Or say [Mapuche 00:14:24] Pueblos for example. They were in that situation where you have this spectrum, and this 2.5 spectrum’s very special, it’s beach front property now and you can’t use the spectrum to connect yourself, because technically it’s protected by another entity. So when you talk about what I do with the FCC, I’ve got to go a little bit into the history of what we’ve done with some of our tribal partners in the past. What we’re able to show is that this free spectrum that was given out as educational spectrum back in the 70s and 80s, it was kind of considered junk spectrum, is now ideal for the deployment of a fixed wireless network in rural areas.
EBS 2.5 Ghz – Ideal Broadband Spectrum for Rural and Tribal Regions
Pete Pizzutillo: Yeah, what makes it ideal?
Mariel Triggs: It’s the physics and the policy. So 2.5 gigahertz is this nice balance. Usually when you go up in frequency you lose the distance it can travel, you lose the penetration. Like a higher pitched voice doesn’t go as far as a low baritone. But then the lower your frequency, then yes, it can travel very, very far, go through walls and leaves and all that, but you don’t carry as much information. So for example, on TV white space we find that one cell can carry two homes that broadband. Then you look at everything that’s happening with millimeter waves and 5G and like, “Okay. If I’m within a few hundred feet of a small cell that I could be getting blazing speeds, 300 megs down.”
Mariel Triggs: So what’s neat about 2.5 gigahertz is it’s this sweet spot that’s the Goldilocks Area between the compromise between distance traveled and capacity. So we’re talking being able to go eight miles and carry 25 homes with broadband speed with off-the-shelf equipment that would cost less than $8000. That’s something that wouldn’t be possible in the past. That’s what’s turned 2.5 gigahertz spectrum into something that’s ideal for rural internet deployment. When I look at what the FCC’s done, in 2018 we helped the Havasupai tribe build their own network. Councilwoman Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss was just three months on the job as the youngest tribal member, and this community’s special. They’re at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. There’re no roads.
Pete Pizzutillo: Wow.
Mariel Triggs: Yeah, I missed a last helicopter flight one time and I had to hike down with a 60 lb. pack eight miles to get to the village. Their mail is still delivered by mule train. And no one would connect them. There’s no return on the investment. Maybe charity will get them connected, but they’re motivated and they wanted to connect themselves. What everyone thought was pointless, because it didn’t seem to result in a sustainable ISP, was able to be done for, at that time in 2017, $15000, half a day of labor, and open-source software.
Pete Pizzutillo: Wow.
Mariel Triggs: And Ophelia’s been maintaining her own network for the last three years, and it only takes her a couple hours a month. So what that did and what the FCC saw is that, “Okay. Folks can self-deploy and connect themselves, and tribal communities deserve the chance to do that.”
Partnering with the FCC to Gain Free Access to EBS Spectrum for Tribal Regions
Pete Pizzutillo: Yeah, for sure. So, you’re working with the FCC to help them understand more the nuances of the policies and what is possible with the communities that you’re trying to represent. But on the other side of that, what kind of insight or advice do you have for the tribal leaders? How can they think about this differently? Are they thinking about it differently? What are some of the biases that you think they need to rethink and start figuring out how to bring this capability to their communities?
Mariel Triggs: Right now when it comes to my advice for tribal leaders, it actually kind of goes back to some of the rules and hoops the FCC designed. There’s a Native Nations Task Force, there’s an Office of Native Affairs and Policy in the FCC, and when the FCC saw that, “Okay. Tribes can do this for themselves. They deserve a chance to claim the spectrum to build out their own networks before we auction it off”, they wrote the rules, but I wish they really consulted with the Native Nations Task Force earlier on in the process, because the rules were written in such a way that there’s all these strange situations that happen. I mentioned the native Hawaiians. So here’s a situation where the native Hawaiian homelands are explicitly stated as eligible lands to be claimed, but the way the rules were written about who can claim them, native Hawaiians are excluded.
Pete Pizzutillo: What?
Mariel Triggs: Yeah, it was unintentional. They just didn’t know their native Hawaiian history, and that’s something that the Native Nations Task Force would’ve picked up pretty quickly. So there’s a lot of little things like that that I would say call up the FCC directly, and if you want the spectrum and you’re confused about something, they are more than willing to help you. You can see it in later little changes that they walked back some of those issues. There’s a whole waiver situation, or waiver process they can do to apply for spectrum if it doesn’t quite fit in their definitions and such. So the FCC actually has a good heart about this. Work with them directly and openly and it’ll help untangle a lot of this.
Pete Pizzutillo: So just to kind of recap that, understand the FCC is a partner that they can reach out to rather than an obstacle, which in some cases the way the FCC’s been painted in media these days it seems more inline with some of the incumbents, but you think there’s some opportunity for this community to leverage the partnership more effectively?
Mariel Triggs: When if comes to this specific issue in the rural tribal window, they are all-in in trying to make it a success. They are limited though by their understanding and the rules. If there’s a disconnect, for whatever reason, the tribal leaders are going to be the ones that have to jump across the table and try to get that support within the FCC. The FCC’s doing a lot of outreach. I’m running into them in Alaska, Montana, Washington. They’re everywhere. They’re trying. But the areas that they’re hitting are conferences, and that’s going to get the tribal communities that can afford to send people to conferences. So there’s going to be, out of the 500-plus communities that should claim spectrum outright easily, if you just stick to conferences you’re only going to hit a couple 100 of them if that. So the other thing I would recommend is just really try to get the word out. The thing that I run into the most is people like, “The federal government doesn’t give things away for free. What’s the catch?”
Pete Pizzutillo: Is there a catch?
Mariel Triggs: There’re some issues that we are exploring, and it looks like everything will be okay. If you’re looking at an issue with spectrum sovereignty for example, if you’re going to consider this a natural resource that should be included in say treaties and such, there’s a question of, “If I claim the spectrum am I giving up rights to any other future claims I might have?” There’s robust tribal telecommunications and policy worlds that are diving into that and making sure that that’s not the case. Claim the license, claim as much as you can, even if it’s just to simplify your life in the future to block other folks from claiming it over you and then having to deal with that issue of other folks feeling like they get to control the airwaves over your land.
Pete Pizzutillo: That’s an interesting observation right there, because it goes to your earlier point about restoring some of the legacy policies that this community’s been enforced with, right? So it’s always come at a cost to them. So I can imagine the suspicion is real and valid, right? But I also think there’s a broader broadband conversation that’s happening. I think the government, maybe not so much the federal, but more the local and state governments, are starting to understand that rather than being a separate industry it’s more enabling capability that supports education and economic development, more like the electrification of America, right?
Mariel Triggs: Yeah, it is.
Pete Pizzutillo: So I think that is not well understood as it could be at some point in time in the near future. Does that make sense?
Working with State Broadband Agencies and Officials
Mariel Triggs: Yes, and I really am impressed when it comes after seeing this as an infrastructure similar to the grid. You have the policies from D.C., but the states have really been stepping up with like, “Okay. How can we harness this opportunity to connect some of the most difficult areas and peoples that we have not been able to connect through traditional means?” You know that right there the state broadband officers have been fantastic. You have certain federal resources when it comes to actual build-out, well, the fixed wireless part that’s that first mile to homes, we try to be more people-centered, and if we say last mile then you’ve got to think about who you’re centering. But that first mile to homes is really cheap now, because it’s deployed, it’s really fast, it’s really easy to run. You still need backhaul.
Mariel Triggs: That’s where their state broadband officers have been great. This is the major expense, this is the one that the ROI’s the most difficult. It’s been great that there’s so much money being put into rural broadband through the federal government. You have RDOF. You have the Department of Interior actually just put out that there’re grants of up to $50000 for tribes to apply for just to do feasibility studies. There’s a lot going on there. However, when it comes to actually coordinating with say the Department of Transportation who might be trenching, you can use their trenches, or the utility commissions, which they have the poles and maybe you can use aerial fiber to bring things in. I’ve been really impressed with how the state agencies and the state broadband officers have been leveraging existing infrastructure and projects in order to try to make that middle mile happen as fast as possible.
Pete Pizzutillo: Do you see tribal leaders working well with their state partners in that regard, or is it [crosstalk 00:25:59]
Mariel Triggs: Depends on the state. Just to be frank, it depends on the state. Some states are phenomenal. New Mexico, the governor has actually taken money out of her discretionary fund in order to build-out middle mile to some of the pueblos. Then you have places where there’s not a good relationship, and there’s a lot of tension and history is not allowing … It’s more adversarial. It does seem to be dependent on who’s in office at the highest level. So governors, and that changes every few years.
Pete Pizzutillo: Yeah, it’s interesting.
Mariel Triggs: I’m optimistic.
Pete Pizzutillo: I know, the Pew Charitable Trusts just released their findings on rural best practices in broadband yesterday I believe. So maybe that’s a resource that we can share with your audience as well to see who’s cutting edge and perhaps more of a partner-friendly state. So we’ve talked a lot about the mission and the industry, but as the CEO of MuralNet I was just wondering what is it that you’re trying to get done in the next 12 months, 10 months, and how do you see this in the challenges before you evolving in the next three to five years?
2020 Broadband Policy Outreach and Information for Tribal Nations
Mariel Triggs: Well, in 2017 we thought it was a tech issue, a bunch of geeks in the Silicon Valley. So we helped develop a network in a box that was easy to deploy, cheap, all of that, and we’re very much schooled because it became very obvious that while the tech could go up fast and it was run pretty easy, it took us four months to be able to get the permission to turn on the network under a temporary permit, and it took us a year and a half to get an actual license. So the big ah-ha in 2018 was that it was a policy problem. Then starting to get the word out about how good the spectrum is and try to start to figure out the world of D.C., because that’s where we’re going to be able to affect change at scale. 2019 was all about that policy advocacy and helping in trying to really work with the movers and shakers on Capitol Hill and in D.C. and other like-minded organizations in order to create policy that was going to be effective.
Mariel Triggs: There was a time where it could’ve been that the tribal party window would be just two months and there would be no education of the different communities about what even spectrum is. Now in 2020 we’re all about outreach. My team is on the road, we’re trying to make the materials. We’re trying to make it as easy as possible to get the information into the hands of tribal leaders so they can make an informed decision about what they want to do. Then after that it’s about the build and about building smart. There’s so much development that will happen in rural lands and making sure that tribal lands are also covered. But if you do it in the wrong order you might disqualify yourself from federal funds. If you have one connection that could be considered broadband speed for example, that might prevent you from getting [Community] Connect or some of these distance learning [Distance Learning & Telemedicine (DLT)] grants from the USDA.
Mariel Triggs: There’s also the issue of how do you ramp up? What are the issues of security and network design that are unique to tribal land? It’s quite fascinating as I see the different network designs and wants and what people are turning their networks into. It almost mimics the decision making structures within their own communities. There’s this idea of what makes a sustainable network. Some folks do want to make a more traditional ISP, but I’ve been seeing some really innovative business models about how we keep our network sustainable and be cutting edge. But not doing it near traditional way or with your traditional metrics telling you whether or not you’re successful, and that’s been pretty amazing, because I can’t wait to take that back to Silicon Valley. We will be learning a lot.
Sparking Agile Broadband Tribal Networks
Mariel Triggs: This 2.5 in Q4 of this year is going to spark a lot of tribal networks, and what we’re looking at is imagine you have 500 agile communities across the United States with unique needs and values and cultures, and they’re going to be designing the way they interface with information, the flow of information between their own entities, between their neighbors, between them and the state, between them and the rest of the world. And they’re doing it at a time where these tools are easy. It’s not just going to be the engineers doing this who can understand IPV4 versus IPV6. It’s going to be the community itself who can put their values into this network design and make it sustainable. There’s going to be an amazing, amazing array of networks that Silicon Valley can learn from over and over again. I don’t know how else to put it.
Pete Pizzutillo: It’s a really interesting point, with that kind of accelerated growth, and like you said, in autonomy and support to come up with creative innovative ways to solve that problem. It’s interesting as well, because I see it as a broader initial issue, there’s a lot of ways that people are trying to cover connectivity globally. My concern, and you touched on it, is around sustainability, is if we don’t foster the communication and collaboration and standards and those types of things, we’ll have all these bespoke systems, which are not sustainable. We just know over history that they’re not sustainable, right? So I think what you’re also doing is important as the glue between these nations that may not have the collaboration, because they don’t have the resource constraint and they may not have the ability that you may have to see what everybody else is doing. I think folks like what MuralNet’s working on is the lessons learned and resources to help people figure out how to build off and share information and resources where possible. Does that make sense?
Mariel Triggs: It is. We often see ourselves as, I wouldn’t say the conduit, because I want there to be as much flow as possible, I want thousands of conduits, but we’re at the nexus of Indian country, D.C. policy, and Silicon Valley tech. But we see ourselves as the translators. The whole reason that we would do the … Not the whole reason, but I should say that the Havasupai tribe’s network was built on this open-source beta software that was the first deployment from Facebook of all folks, it’s called Magma. What my goal there was is if we could get Silicon Valley to not do all the designs around Silicon Valley, if we could just get Silicon Valley to design it around folks very different from them in different situations the resulting product will be much more useful for the rest of the world.
Pete Pizzutillo: I see Facebook, since you mentioned them, and Microsoft also trying to get into the rural connectivity, not just in North America, but in Africa and some other places. So in some ways Silicon Valley is coming to the countryside, and are you collaborating with them any further?
Mariel Triggs: Oh, yes. We’re a non-profit. Just to put it bluntly. We run a very tight ship, but getting Silicon Valley connected in productive ways with Indian country is one of the things that we do. So we continue to help our grant funding for outreach. A lot of it is from Silicon Valley. We work with folks within Google, and Vint Cerf is one of our major contributors through the People-Centered Internet in order to develop educational materials for Indian country and about this opportunity. So we very much are rooted in the Bay Area. It’s where we are and what we want to do is make those conduits, those connections authentic and productive, and frankly, not just through us, but directly between Indian country and Silicon Valley. There’s a lot that they can learn from each other.
Pete Pizzutillo: Yeah, I agree. So you kind of gave us a little insight into MuralNet’s background. How did it start? How long have you guys been around, and what was the impetus for that?
MuralNet’s Mission to Bridge the Tribal Nation Digital Divide
Mariel Triggs: 2017 was when we started. Our co-founders were Brian Shih and Martin Casado. Martin Casado was actually the inventor of Software Defined Networking. His second startup sold for $1.3 billion, and at the same time he grew up in Montana in Flagstaff. He knew where he was from. He wanted to give back, and this was a natural way to do it. Brian Shih was working for EducationSuperHighway. It was helping schools really maximize and really understand the policy rules around E-rate and how that can fuel their vision for the connectivity of their institution. Then we had just different people from all these different places of business world, I was coming from the educational world.
Mariel Triggs: We had people from the tech world and working on this problem. Now, what I see as our team is kind of formed around what problem we’re tackling. Back when it was a network in a box this was the A-team, it was great. When we hit policy, that’s when we had to take on more knowledgeable lawyers. Like Edyael Casaperalta, she’s been working in rural policy for broadband for a decade, and she came on to help us navigate the halls of D.C. We started doing more outreach, and then we get like Petra Wilson, who’s our specialist for outreach, and she’s helping us navigate like how do we actually get into the right places in order for people to learn about this opportunity.
Mariel Triggs: Then as we transition now more into how do we make network designs that are going to work for many, many people, we find ourselves working more directly with the tribal colleges and universities and places like that that are centers of learning indigenous knowledge and know how to design networks. So our leadership and our people are morphing constantly to meet the needs of our goals. So that is kind of what we are. We’re a very agile non-profit who is trying to figure what are the barriers being put in the way for tribal communities being able to have control of the way they connect themselves to the internet, and then we chip away at that problem, whether it was tech, policy, or now one of messaging and getting the word out.
Pete Pizzutillo: So, looking down the road three to five years from now, how do you see MuralNet changing? What kind of services or capabilities, expertise, do you think you’re going to need at that point?
Innovative and Sustainable Broadband Networks – Owned and Operated by Tribal Nations
Mariel Triggs: I do see ourselves going more into the ed, the training, the partnership, such that you can build that more internal capacity and infrastructure both within Indian country so that you have more workforce development when it comes to telecommunications, but also when it comes to utilizing any sort of opportunity for sustainability online. And also within Silicon Valley, getting in the folks and the people that really challenge and help design the tools for tomorrow in ways that will help folks in Indian country. We want to support the cultural competency of Silicon Valley as well as the innovation, the resiliency within native communities so that they can innovate on their own lands in the ways that they want to.
Pete Pizzutillo: So really extending that translation role you’re kind of witnessing what is next needed in bringing it back to technology partners to help advancing the sustainable and capabilities that this community and probably every other community could benefit from?
Mariel Triggs: I was at a conference yesterday and sitting on a panel with councilwoman Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss at NEBSA. NEBSA’s the National EBS Association. It’s essentially the license holders incumbent of the 2.5 gigahertz spectrum. Someone asked a great question about what makes a good partner and what makes a bad partner. What she said was, it’s pretty phenomenal, she’s like, “The good partner’s the one that sticks around and lets you form your vision and doesn’t tell you what to do or how to do it, but lets you self-determine what your future’s going to be, and they’re a support and they’ll stand by you. But they stand aside as you make your own way and make your own vision.”
Mariel Triggs: And that idea of self-determination is what I see MuralNet doing in three to five years, is being a partner who, when they need the support, can be there when they want to have effective change in the places that might be putting up barriers in their way, whether it’s Washington D.C. or Silicon Valley, that we can advocate for them. And basically if there’s a door that’s open we hold it open so that they can walk through if they want.
Pete Pizzutillo: Yeah, I like that. It’s great. So how do people learn more about MuralNet? We’ve kind of laid it out, but what kind of resources are available and where can we go find out more information?
Mariel Triggs: From our website, MuralNet.org, is a good place. It’s definitely geared right now to get the word out about the Tribal Priority Window with maps and rules and stuff like that. But we have a lot of our success stories up there. They just keep increasing. Our tribal community partners continue to build their networks or plan them out and grow. More and more of them are getting confident and being willing to share their story publicly. We’ll be able to share more and more information. That’s definitely where you can see what we’re about.
Pete Pizzutillo: That’s great. I hope we can help spread the word out. This is The Broadband Bunch. We’ve been speaking with Mariel Triggs, the CEO of MuralNetwork, engineer, teacher, advocate for the tribal nations in the U.S., who’s been doing some tremendous work to help educate both the American government, state governments, the industry, and to be the translation bridge between people that need help and need to understand what’s available to them and the communities that can help those folks. So if you have an opportunity to check out their website, muralnet.org, please do. Mariel, thank you for all this time. It’s a great mission that you’re on. I appreciate all your insight. Your hands are full, and if there’s anything else that we can do to help hopefully we can spread the word and get you guys some more support.
Mariel Triggs: Thank you very much.