Wahzhazhe Connect staffers attend conferences

Russ Tallchief

Members of the Osage Nation’s broadband department, Wahzhazhe Connect, recently returned from three separate conferences on tribal broadband expansion projects. The National Tribal Telecommunications Association’s (NTTA: https://nationaltribaltelecom.org/) Tribal Broadband Summit titled “Building a Tribal SMART Broadband Network,” was held at the Gila River Wild Horse Pass Resort in Chandler, Arizona. The conference, presented by Calix, was hosted by Gila River Telecommunications, Inc., with hundreds of tribal delegates in attendance from the broadband industry around the country.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA: https://ntia.gov/) extended the NTTA conference another couple of days to host the first in-person meeting of the Tribal Broadband Leaders Network. The meetings covered topics ranging from safety to business sustainability to supply chain issues and grant applications and compliance. Tribal broadband leaders were offered opportunities to connect with federal program officers to ensure broadband projects succeed in connecting “Internet for All.” Speakers shared challenges and best practices in their respective tribal broadband projects.

“These conferences have illustrated how much Native talent we have in the broadband industry,” said Drew Tiger, one of Wahzhazhe Connect’s Project Managers. “It’s been very beneficial to meet the leaders in the broadband community and learn from their expertise and see how all of the different parts fit together. Attending these conferences is invaluable for us to understand this new industry and Wahzhazhe Connect’s place in it.”

Amanda Wamego, Wahzhazhe Connect’s Data and Program Analyst, attended the conferences with an eye on grants management and compliance. “Broadband is new to everyone, across all tribal nations,” Wamego said. “I was surprised at how far along our project is compared to other tribal nations in attendance. Many tribes were still waiting to hear back on their awards, and others had not begun any part of their project. One particular Arizona-based tribe was amazed that we had a department for broadband. She was trying to convince her tribal leaders that a department needed to be created for this project.”

Wahzhazhe Connect’s director, Dr. James Trumbly, who helped the Osage Nation create its broadband department, was a featured speaker on a panel titled “What Difference Does Broadband Make?” The panel was moderated by Claudia Tarbell, Calix’s Senior Engagement Manager for Tribal and Indigenous Communities. Calix, Inc. is a telecommunications company that specializes in providing software platforms, systems, and services to support the delivery of broadband services.

“Building a network on rural tribal lands has all the needs of any other community but with greater ramifications, Trumbly said. “On a reservation, the clinic may be too far away for someone to travel to in-person, so telehealth may be the only option. The language and culture department can offer remote access to events, classes, and demonstrations. The museum can present exhibitions and collections online. We want to encourage entrepreneurship by providing technical support and access to broadband for Osage business people.”

Trumbly explained on the panel how Wahzhazhe Connect’s project management will be administered through a “scrum” agile methodology. Kelbie Witham, Wahzhazhe Connect’s other Project Manager, is a certified “Scrum Master,” with experience in utilizing the scrum technique in rugby. A scrum in rugby refers to the technique in which an entire team joins together, interlocking their bodies, to advance the ball as a single unit.

“Utilizing scrum in our broadband construction will involve gathering team members together that are stakeholders from different departments in the project,” said Witham, who plays rugby for the Wichita Valkyries. “Then we put our heads together in a huddle, not literally as in rugby, but figuratively we huddle together to form a plan to get the project done in a finite amount of time.” One of the advantages of utilizing an agile methodology like scrum is that the project team will be able to adapt and react to changes very rapidly, Trumbly added.

Tiger was directly impacted by conversations around supply chain issues, which plague industries like broadband. Wahzhazhe Connect relies on tons of materials to be shipped to the Osage Nation’s warehouse, which is managed by Wahzhazhe Connect’s Warehouse Manager Dave Madden. “A lot of the materials we order will come with supply delays, which affects scheduling and timing,” Tiger said. “Time is money.”

Tiger has been meeting delegates from other tribal nations that are at varying points in the broadband expansion process. Some tribes are still in the grant-writing phase while others, like Wahzhazhe Connect, have been awarded grant dollars and are in the construction phase. “I’ve been talking with other tribes and we’re all coming out of the gate similarly in this industry,” Tiger said. “Some of us are limping, but once we get our footing and start to make things happen, there’s a hotbed of resources and talent available out there in Indian Country.”

At the Fiber Broadband Association’s (https://fiberbroadband.org/) Conference held the first week of April in Oklahoma City, Witham was particularly interested in the discussion on the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) and how residents can apply for the discounted program. Under the ACP, a household can receive a deep discount on broadband service if their household is located on qualifying tribal lands and the household income is at or below 200% of the federal poverty guidelines, among other qualifications.

“Human interaction is our greatest resource and being able to help people apply for the program would be very beneficial,” Witham said.

According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), many but not all households in the Osage Nation that qualify for the ACP have filled out the application. If residents would like to find out if they qualify for the discount, visit:https://www.affordableconnectivity.gov/do-i-qualify/enhanced-tribal-benefit/. If residents need assistance with the application, please reach out to Wahzhazhe Connect for help. Residents in the Osage Nation should also check out the FCC National Broadband Map to find out if internet is available in their area. If the map is inaccurate, residents can submit a challenge today at https://broadbandmap.fcc.gov/home.

Photo caption: Pictured are, from left, Dr. James Trumbly, director of Wahzhazhe Connect; Russ Tallchief, of Osage Nation Communications; Kelbie Witham, project manager for Wahzhazhe Connect; Drew Tiger, project manager for Wahzhazhe Connect; and James Lightfoot, president of ACRS 2000 Corp.