By Michelle Zilis
Bringing broadband services to the remote areas of the Yurok tribe’s large reservation in northwest California has been a challenging undertaking. In January, the tribe signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Carlson Wireless Technologies for the RuralConnect IP product, which will use the vacated TV spectrum known as white spaces to accomplish the tribe’s goal.
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Led by Yurok Tribe’s Broadband Manager Jim Norton, the reservation investigated a technology that would serve 70 to 80 percent of the reservation. “Our terrain is so rugged there is no guarantee that line of sight (LOS) could be met,” Norton said. This posed a problem when looking at the technologies available when the project began.
“When this was first conceived, white spaces didn’t exist,” he said. When the project launched the tribe looked at 900 MHz, and 2.4 and 5 GHz technologies, all of which would require the use of directional antennas. Additional T1 lines were limited. “You only get one if someone else releases his or hers,” he said. And satellite posed a problem for time-sensitive matters, such as VoIP and video conferencing.
Initially Norton and his team decided to proceed with 900 MHz access points and client radios because the technology offered better penetration for brush and vegetation. However, the technology suffered from a limited data throughput, typically around 800 kilobits per second (kbps), Norton said.
As the team was breaking ground, Carlson Wireless Technologies approached them with RuralConnect IP, which reuses the vacant TV airwaves for broadband service. “The Rural Connect is a game changer… For signal propagation over rugged terrain, it’s the perfect candidate.” Norton said. “LOS and non line of sight (nLOS) issues and the number of antennas required are significantly reduced.” Other benefits include increased frequency range, lower costs and less environmental impact, which was important to the residents on the reservation who requested that culturally sensitive areas remain unchanged.
The FCC adopted its second memorandum opinion and order (MO&O) that freed vacant airwaves between TV channels known as white spaces in September 2010. Since then, the FCC conditionally designated nine entities as TV bands device database administrators, and the Wireless Innovation Forum (WIF) formed two new groups focused on white spaces communications.
After the RuralConnect IP received an FCC experimental license in January and the tribe signed the MoU, Norton recognized that he could build smaller towers, 60 feet instead of the original 100 feet, and drop one of the additional towers all together. Funding was made available from the tribal council, as well as several federal grant programs. Hardwire equipment costs included access points and terminals.
The Tribal Police recently received a dedicated line from the Department of Justice (DOJ) that can be used only to access the national databases. For all other Internet access, the Tribal Network, which includes GIS mapping database and other network services, is connected to the public safety office and shares the Internet connection with all other reservation users. The current Internet and inter-access see dial-up speeds with no bandwidth for video, Norton said.
The public-safety services are also in the beginning stages of a voice communications system upgrade. The two new systems will share whenever possible. “One of the reasons we chose the Motorola PTP600 platform for the ‘fat pipe’ sections of our backhaul is that those systems reserve a section of their point-to-point bandwidth for exclusive, priority use by the public-safety radio system whenever they key up,” Norton said. “By combining the backhaul portions of the network, we shave costs and save tower space by not needing a separate point-to-point radio system for public-safety backhaul.”
The first tower is now up and operational. The operational date for the second tower is projected for the end of July or early August. They will also make modifications to the existing third tower. In the first round of testing, plenty of signal was detected but there was also a lot of reflection, Norton said.
“The alpha tests were successful on the UHF version of the radios, and we’re proceeding with a variation of our original plan for beta testing,” Norton said. “Essentially we’re using a couple of the UHF radios to bounce the signal to our North Klamath compound and then using that as a distribution point with the VHF radio units.” The beta testing will hook up to the fire station last week week.
The new broadband network will bring the fire department much better interconnection, allowing for live video training to minimize training resources.
The police station is out of reach of the first tower; the second tower will serve it, Norton said. “When our main office gets the upgraded Internet from the second tower, so will public safety,” he said. “The branch offices of public safety will then have direct access to the Tribal Network, as well allowing the public-safety officers to communicate directly for the first time via a network wholly owned by the tribe.”
Once the system is fully operation it will have several mission-critical applications. The reservation’s two clinics, which both already have reasonable access with a couple of T1s, will be able to use telemedicine and other live interconnections with the new Internet connection.
In the event of an emergency, the towers are independent and can operate for days off the grid. They don’t have to depend on outside sources, Norton said. And the emergency service coordinator can take a mobile command center wherever it is needed. The mobile command center is fully independent and can reach the whole reservation. The center is ready for use but has yet to be deployed in a real situation, Norton said.
“The mobile command center is equipped with satellite Internet as a secondary Internet source and as soon as we are able, it will be equipped with our fastest RuralConnect white space radio for its primary Internet source, with the added advantage of having direct access to the tribal network (with its GIS mapping systems) and public-safety communications system backbone,” he said.
The ability to access the Internet from most places on the reservation is important, Norton said. “In most places on/near the reservation, the RuralConnect technology means that we will be in range of our access points, something no other technology can match at this time,” he said.
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