Wrangell has been selected for the initial start-up of Tidal Network, a newly formed enterprise of the Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska that will bring wireless broadband internet service to underserved areas.

The new service could start in Wrangell by late spring.

The Central Council plans eventually to extend the new service throughout much of Southeast.

The focus is to reach homes and businesses that lack access to reliable internet service, Chris Cropley, a network architect with the Central Council, said last Friday. “If you’ve got cable, there are not very many reasons to go over to wireless.”

The Tidal Network will not refuse service to cable internet customers, but will not go after those customers, Cropley said.

“The bottom line and sole focus of the work we are doing under Tidal Network is to ensure reliable internet to our underserved rural communities in Southeast Alaska,” Will Ware, the council’s chief development officer, said in a prepared statement last month.

The service, much like cell phone coverage, will be provided from antennas atop towers, unlike traditional internet signals that move through cables to homes and businesses.

The Federal Communications Commission issued a broadband license to the Central Council in December.

The new system initially will use “pop-up” temporary towers and antennas that will be set up in Wrangell to broadcast and receive internet signals, Cropley said. The second step will be installing antennas atop the three existing cell towers around Wrangell, he said.

A third stage will involve building new towers, maybe as many as three more, to expand the service farther out the road and throughout the community, Cropley said Dec. 23.

Fiber optic cables will serve the towers, relaying the internet traffic in and out of Wrangell. Each antenna will have a broadcast range of about two miles, Cropley said.

The Central Council is working on setting its rates for the service. It’s possible the Tidal Network may offer a free or low-cost service for some households at slower speeds, with higher fees for faster speeds and more download capacity, he said. A separate rate structure likely will be adopted for commercial users, without a free or low-cost tier.

Wrangell’s lone internet provider, GCI, currently charges $80 a month for its lowest level of service, moving through three tiers to its fastest service with unlimited capacity at $180 a month.

The Tidal Network is not intended to replace GCI, but rather to provide internet to areas of town with spotty or no service, Cropley explained.

The Central Council is looking into whether federal internet subsidies provided for low-income residents in rural communities might be available for Tidal Network customers, which would be one way to provide free or low-cost services, Cropley said.

“We are really working to get a free tier,” he said, adding that the slower speeds of a free tier probably would not allow streaming of high-definition videos.

The network’s goal is to provide as much service to as many people as possible, Cropley said. The network will be available to everyone in Wrangell, not just tribal citizens.

Initial funding for the network and pilot project in Wrangell will come from federal pandemic aid legislation, he said. The Central Council also has applied for a federal grant of $50 million, which could cover the full build-out across more of Southeast, providing 32 towers in 22 different communities.

“We have sufficient funding for Wrangell,” Cropley said.

“In partnership with Wrangell Cooperative Association, the project will focus on extending fixed wireless internet service to provide last-mile delivery of broadband services and is expected to begin this spring,” the Central Council statement said, referring to Wrangell as an underserved population.

The Tidal Network could support tribal sovereignty in the digital age, said Christie Jameison, former Wrangell Cooperative Association vice president. Jameison attended a two-day FCC Tribal Spectrum workshop in March 2020 in Juneau, held by the Central Council.

“There were 19 tribes invited,” Jameison said. The two-day workshop was about the possibility of tribes gaining licenses for broadband services over their lands by applying for a permit with the FCC. Tlingit & Haida said it has been working in partnership with Southeast tribes since 2019 to secure the broadband licenses.

To date, 292 applications have been granted through the FCC Rural Tribal Priority Window, including 99 applications from Alaska tribes, the Central Council said. In addition to Tlingit & Haida, licenses have gone to the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe, Sitka Tribe of Alaska, Hydaburg Cooperative Association and Organized Village of Saxman.