Tribe excited about possible wireless in North Dakota, South Dakota

By Joe Sneve
Sioux Falls, South Dakota (AP) August 2010

A telecommunications company created by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has tribal officials hopeful that it will enhance education on the reservation and give the local economy a shot in the arm.

Standing Rock Telecommunications is the first tribal-owned telecommunications company in the nation that offers cellular phone and wireless broadband service. Beginning with an $11 million investment in 2007, it has put up 18 towers within the reservation that straddles the North Dakota and South Dakota border and secured locations for two branch stores and a headquarters.

SRT General Manager Miles McAllister said the tribe saw a connection between prospering communities and wireless access. With the average income of residents on the reservation at $10,000, he hopes the company can provide new opportunities even as that income level becomes a hurdle to creating a sustainable business.

“It’s a huge challenge. But one of the reason that income levels are so low is because there is less opportunity,” he said. “By us offering connections, which will enhance business opportunity, we hope those incomes will come up.”

Improving education on the reservation is synonymous with creating the foundation for a better quality of life, McAllister said, and SRT will offer discounted rates for needy families.

Jesi Shanley, work force liaison for the tribe, said getting families connected will go a long way in assisting with the traditional education process but will go even further in exposing Native American children to the rest of the world.

“There are people that live here that never even get to go to Bismarck (N.D.), let alone tap into what China is doing,” she said. “It’s going to increase our children’s awareness of what this whole world looks like. They won’t be so isolated.”

The Standing Rock Reservation is about 70 miles south of Bismarck.

The graduation rate of South Dakota Native American students enrolled in public schools is about 60 percent. Students who attend Bureau of Indian Education schools graduate at an even lower rate.

Resident Martin Three Stars, 32, said the technology didn’t get to Standing Rock a moment too soon.

“Things were getting real bad up here,” he said. “But this new company has shown that the tribe is investing in our lives. They are doing something to make all of our lives better.”

The technology also will help local governments and emergency services on the reservation better serve the tribal members and local residents.

Last winter, there was a three-day period when communications were down at Standing Rock. Because the SRT system is backed up with batteries and generators, the reservation won’t have to experience that again, Shanley said.

“There were no phones, so to have a network like this ... we will never lose communication,” she said.

“And we’re less likely to lose lives in situations like that,” she added, pointing out that “we have people on dialysis all over the reservation.”

McAllister said SRT has about 270 customers but hopes to grow to 1,000 by year’s end. About 8,500 people live on the reservation, and 14,000 Native Americans are enrolled in the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.