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Cherokee navigate the business side of Internet for all

fr broadbandIt’s been more than eight years since the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians made its first move toward creating a business to bring Internet to the Qualla Boundary, but the issue has proven a good bit more complicated than first expected.

Much of the reservation is still without Internet or even reliable phone service, and a tribal enterprise intended to make a business out of bringing those services to people living in the most isolated pockets of tribal land is still looking at an uncertain future.  

“One of the greatest assets they have there, being the beautiful mountains and the foliage that goes with it, is the hardest thing to overcome with wireless communication,” said Jim Ingram, operations manager at Cherokee Broadband. 

Ingram has been working with Cherokee Broadband ever since the tribe hired his company, Trificient Technologies, to plan and set up the operation. The task was supposed to take one year to complete. That was four years ago. 

“The problem that has to be covered is that we have got to find the people who can replace myself as operations manger and who can replace my senior technology manager to take over those positions,” Ingram told tribal council earlier this month. “It’s been very difficult for us to keep people.”

Fully training someone to know everything they’d need to know about wireless, fiber, networking and Internet — and to be familiar with all the ins and outs of Cherokee Broadband’s particular network — would take 12 to 18 months, Ingram told council, so the transition won’t be an overnight task. 

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But it needs to happen if Cherokee Broadband is to ever go fully under tribal control rather than being run by — and paying — a consulting team. 

“It should go back to the tribe at some point in time, but we’ve got to get those individuals. We’ve got to get them trained,” Ingram said. 

“Is this the time to make that transition?” asked Council Chairwoman Terri Henry. 

“We need to do it,” Ingram said. 

Money is a big part of that. Cherokee Broadband lost $410,000 in 2014, Finance Director Kim Peone told council. 

“If we can bring that entity within the tribe, it will stop the bleeding,” she said.

As a tribal entity, Cherokee Broadband would be eligible for grants and low-cost capital. Its employees would be tribal employees, able to get the benefits and payroll deductions they can’t as contract workers, and the tribe would have full control over Cherokee Broadband’s future, rather than paying a consulting company to take that responsibility. 


Public service or for-profit business? 

The question, though, is how it should be brought under the tribe. Should Cherokee Broadband be a tribal enterprise, like the casino, or a public utility, like running water? 

The 2009 resolution that created Cherokee Broadband envisioned it as a moneymaking enterprise. But an ordinance that the tribe’s finance office introduced in January sought to shift it to a public utility. 

“If you sell a bundle — Internet, television and telephone service — that business model doesn’t work if we confine ourselves to the boundary,” said Cory Blankenship, director of finance and management. “There is just not enough population to make that a successful business venture.”

But finance’s resolution was just one of five on the agenda that day pertaining to broadband. Councilmembers spent a hefty chunk of the afternoon discussing the first two before deciding to table the lot and schedule a meeting the following week with all the elected officials and department heads involved to figure out what to do next. 

Because whatever the outcome, everyone agreed, it’s important that it be a good one. 

“Our kids are going to need this to be able to do their homework,” Henry said. 

Right now, there are a lot of kids that can’t. No areas on the boundary are completely covered by Internet access, and while access is best in Wolftown, Painttown and U.S. 19 up to Big Cove, there’s basically no coverage in Snowbird, Wright’s Creek, Big Witch, Old Soco Road and much of Big Cove. 

The topography is much of the challenge, but then there’s also the fact that, from a business perspective, there’s significant cost associated with extending coverage to a relatively small amount of people. 

“We have to be comfortable to erect a tower that’s going to cost $250,000 to reach 15 costumers,” Blankenship said. “That’s not a business decision.” 

Hence why, after hearing from department heads and experts on the matter, many councilmembers are leaning toward making broadband a public utility. 

“I think it’s important to get all our members of all our tribes to have Internet access for a lot of different reasons,” said Perry Shell, councilmember from Big Cove. “I think that I’m going to lean toward utility at this point, making it a tribal utility like water and sewer. Right now the market isn’t going to make it a viable business enterprise.”

Council will likely make a decision at an upcoming council meeting, allowing the tribe to start moving forward on a plan that’s been treading water for years. 



The history

In 2004, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians went in 50-50 with Drake Enterprises to form Balsam West, a company that installed 280 miles of fiberoptic cable in a ring through Western North Carolina, into Tennessee and Georgia and back into North Carolina. The cable was meant to be a superhighway of Internet access that companies would then plug into, flooding the mountains’ most remote regions with service. 

But it didn’t quite work out that way, because connecting that fiberoptic ring to individual homes and businesses proved an expensive undertaking. That’s why the tribe created Cherokee Broadband. 

“Cherokee Broadband was formed in order to provide connectivity around the reservation to businesses and homes,” said Jim Ingram, operations manager of Cherokee Broadband. 

Cherokee Broadband buys Internet connectivity from Balsam West and then finds ways to deliver it to all the many small pockets of population on the Qualla Boundary. 

It’s been almost six years since the resolution instituting Cherokee Broadband was adopted, and four since Ingram was hired as a consultant to get the entity started. But the tribe is still trying to figure out the best way to organize it, and Ingram is still far from finished routing connectivity everywhere it needs to go.

“We may not get to everybody,” he said. “If you have driven through Cherokee, you can see how the terrain is very difficult to get to. There’s thousands hidden away you’ll never see.”

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