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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 March, 2004, 09:37 GMT
Tribes take to wireless web
Wireless technology is helping native Americans in California go online and learn computing skills, reports Elizabeth Biddlecombe from San Francisco.

Wireless learning centre
This learning centre is connected to the net using wi-fi
Before the Tribal Digital Village project, Jack Ward could not get online when it rained.

"The telephone lines are very old," explained the director of the Digital Village. "In the heat of the desert it doesn't take long for them to deteriorate."

Things are different now. Everybody has at least a broadband DSL connection.

The Tribal Digital Village (TDV) is based in Southern California's San Diego County. This mountainous and remote land is home to 18 native American reservations - each one a sovereign nation - with an aggregate population of 15,000.

As with other rural areas of the US, wiring Native American reservations for telephony and internet access has never been an attractive proposition for established phone companies.

The number of subscribers per mile makes recouping costs a tricky proposition. Nor has deregulation of the telecoms market changed the picture.

HP donations

Tribal governments have taken matters into their own hands. Three years ago, the Southern California Tribal Chairmen's Association applied for a $5m grant from Hewlett-Packard.

Native American tribe members
With no basic economy, many of the young people have to leave the tribe to work. Now they can stay
Jack Ward, Tribal Digital Village
The technology giant had decided to set up three so-called digital villages, but not just for philanthropic reasons.

"We really wanted to understand what it would take to be successful in serving underserved and emerging markets," said Scott Bossinger of HP.

In addition to training and support, the company has donated, "pretty much everything across the product portfolio", he said, including handheld iPaqs, computers and wireless access points.

A wireless internet connection now spans an area 150 miles long by 75 miles wide. Bubbles of wi-fi networks cover local government offices, libraries, schools and museums.

More than 900 computers are connected to the network.

More than 1,500 people use e-mail and access online tribal calendars. Educational software is available to supplement high school courses.

There are 25 learning labs equipped with video, audio and digital photography equipment.

The TDV offers a range of computing courses. One tribal chairman is doing a Cisco Academy certification course in order to be able to support his tribe of eight people.

But people have not gone on to get jobs with outside companies as yet.

"Everybody we've trained is busy doing it here at the moment," said Jack Ward. Staunching the brain drain from these deprived communities was another objective of the project.

Commercial expansion

This is where the HP 3000 printing press comes in. A new company, Hi-Rez Digital Solutions, was inaugurated in October and hopes to break-even by April by providing high-quality, short-run print services.

Not only will this cutting-edge technology enable a lucrative business, said Mr Ward, but it will enable the tribes to train and employ their own communities.

Indian Health Center Mobile healthcare unit
This Indian Health Center Mobile healthcare unit also uses wi-fi
"With no basic economy, many of the young people have to leave the tribe to work. Now they can stay," he enthused. "With technology support, the tribes can become a true sovereign nation."

Having connectivity has made it easier for most tribes to provide local services such as courts, fire and security departments as well as apply for the many grants they use to run their nations.

A handful of reservations in the coverage area have no water, power or phone lines. They therefore rely on the Tribal Digital Village resource centres of their better connected neighbours.

The three-year HP project comes to an end this month and the Tribal Digital Village will enter a new phase.

The network is currently being upgraded from its current bandwidth of 3Mbps to 45 Mbps. This will make it more possible to connect individual homes.

Such an expansion will be funded by new commercial contracts. For instance the directors are looking into providing internet connectivity to neighbouring non-Indian communities that already fall under the coverage of the wireless network.

Taking control

While they are learning a new hi-tech vocabulary, TDV also enables these Americans to strengthen their knowledge of older tongues.

TDV data centre
The data network was funded by a grant from HP
An online resource called First Voices allows archiving and instruction in the four different native languages used in the region.

Jack Ward takes pleasure in another result of the award-winning project: technical parity with other sectors of North American society.

"Technology is no longer something [the tribes] see on TV or in the newspaper adverts," he said. "It has become real to them."

Other native communities are also taking control of their telecoms infrastructure. Thirty received loans and grants totalling more than US$42 million from the Rural Utilities Services, part of the Department of Agriculture in 2003.

And as part of its Indian Initiatives, US regulator, the Federal Communications Commission, recently announced an agreement with tribal governments to improve communication between native Americans and the companies who build mobile phone towers either on Indian-owned land or places held by indigenous Americans to be sacred.

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