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Monday, April 12, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
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Wi-Fi program links Sauk-Suiattle to high-speed access, wealth of opportunities

By Monica Soto Ouchi
Seattle Times technology reporter

DEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Randell Harris, right, a technology-outreach coordinator for the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians' Economic Development Council, and David Lenon, a member of the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe, have an animated discussion about a Web site.
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DARRINGTON — Two hours northeast of Seattle, on a road lined with latte stands rather than coffeehouses, there's a wireless Internet hotspot like no other.

If Wi-Fi has become commonplace at cafes across downtown Seattle, slow-speed Internet prevails here. On a recent weekday, Randell Harris Sr. starts a class that may change all that.

"Does everyone know what spam is?" Harris asks a small group of Sauk-Suiattle Indian tribal members, each sitting at a computer station.

"It's junk mail," he says in an ominous tone. "It's worse than the stuff you get in the mail."

Harris, technology-outreach coordinator for the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians' Economic Development Council, is here because Sauk-Suiattle is officially the first tribal Wi-Fi hotspot the council has set up in the Pacific Northwest.

Sauk-Suiattle received the wireless high-speed Internet service through a joint agreement among the tribe, the council and Herndon, Va.-based Verizon Avenue, a subsidiary of telecommunications giant Verizon Communications.

Elstun Lauesen, technology director of the council, said the program is a pilot of sorts to see whether Verizon Avenue could provide broadband services to Indian Country.

"I was sitting at a table, and two women were talking basically to everybody at the table, excited that they were going to take distance-learning courses," Lauesen said of last week's ribbon-cutting ceremony to usher in the service. "And that's what it's all about."

Caters to apartment industry

Verizon Avenue caters to the apartment industry, delivering Internet access to 1.1 million units. Landlords contract with Verizon Avenue to provide telecommunications and broadband services to its tenants. The company makes money providing those services in bulk.

Executive Vice President Kelley Dunne said Verizon Avenue began looking into ways to deliver the same services to rural communities, and Wi-Fi might make it a reality.

With DSL, service generally is restricted to within a 3-mile radius of a phone company central office. In rural communities, where homes are spread farther apart, high-speed Internet access is available to few.

Verizon Avenue overcame that barrier by running a T-1 line, a business-grade high-speed Internet connection, into the reservation and using an antenna to distribute that signal wirelessly to each of the homes.

Dunne said Verizon Avenue is looking to deploy the same service in other rural markets. "Wireless makes it more economical than digging a lot of trenches," he said.

Internet competition

Roughly 152 million adults had access to the Internet either at home, work or through a university in the last three months of 2003, according to comScore Networks. Of those, 36 percent used a high-speed connection.

Russell Fradin, comScore executive vice president who oversees its telecommunications research, said both cable and telephone companies are competing to control as much of a user's experience as possible, whether it be providing long-distance telephone service or Internet access.

Verizon Avenue's focus on rural areas is most likely an extension of that competition.

"They're testing the most profitable ways to service customers as possible" in rural areas, Fradin said.

A provision in the 1996 Telecommunications Act gave federal subsidies to telecom companies that provide services to rural areas. The subsidies enabled Verizon Avenue to offer the service to Sauk-Suiattle at a lower rate.

Dunne said the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe in Snohomish County was chosen as a test market because it's smaller and in a remote location where broadband could have a particularly profound impact. Verizon Avenue also provided Dell computers for each of the 17 homes on the reservation.

DEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Brian Hoffman, a technician with Verizon, installs an Internet antenna for a member of the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe.
"The really compelling thing about this is you're creating an infrastructure or a platform for economic development for the tribe," Dunne said, referring to e-commerce, distance learning and other services that become available with high-speed Internet access. "There are a number of applications that become viable. A lot of it is up to the creativity and innovation of the tribe itself."

John Pugh, 37, has already felt the change.

Pugh, a tribal member and Microsoft employee who does automation testing for the Internet Explorer team, said he was able to run the tests remotely after having dinner with his wife.

The team received the results that night, instead of the following morning when he got into work. "A team of 75 people got to look at the results four hours earlier," he said.

Lauesen calls Wi-Fi access a first step. In the future, Sauk-Suiattle and other tribes may be able to make a business becoming Wi-Fi providers for their surrounding communities.

Avenue to education

Five minutes into the recent class session, Felicia Misanes, 12, shuffles in wearing sweat shirt and sneakers.

She sits in an office chair next to an empty computer, swiveling back and forth. A few minutes later she slides her chair closer to the empty computer terminal, and then closer still. Soon, her hands are sideways, typing on the computer. Soon, she's pushed the computer at an angle so it's facing her.

Harris, the teacher, is showing the class how to set up an e-mail account. Halfway through his lesson, Felicia has set up an account.

"You have e-mail accounts?" David Lenon, another teenager, asks.

"Four," she says, twisting in her chair.

"Four?" he says, with a look of surprise. "You're spoiled."

Felicia's e-mail accounts contain monikers like smiles, peanutbuttercup and loggerchick. She doesn't live on the reservation, but in Darrington with her mother. She said she uses the Internet to send instant messages to her friends and to research her homework.

"Like, we had to do reports on Romans one time and I looked up Romans," she says.

Gloria George, a counselor for the tribe, said she'll use her Internet access to send e-mail to family in Vancouver, B,.C. and Spokane.

"My first question would be, what could I take over the Internet as college classes?" she said. "I hope I can take a class. That's the most exciting part for me."

Monica Soto Ouchi: 206-515-5632 or msoto@seattletimes.com


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