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IT Networks Going Wireless at Tribal Colleges

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IT Networks Going Wireless at Tribal Colleges

It’s not surprising that Turtle Mountain Community College’s president, Dr. Gerald E. Monette, wants to use technology to alleviate the isolation experienced by the North Dakota-based tribal college. Located a few miles from the Canadian border, the Turtle Mountain campus sits on a Chippewa Indian reservation in an area situated far from the population centers of the American Midwest.
“We’re in one of the poorest counties in the nation,” Monette says.  
Monette and Turtle Mountain reservation officials are hoping a wireless computer networking project funded by the National Science Foundation will enable the school to overcome isolation and poverty to provide distance learning opportunities and other technology-based benefits to its students and reservation residents. Turtle Mountain is the first of four tribal colleges undergoing an information technology (IT) makeover to establish a wireless networking infrastructure as the foundation of its campus IT system.
Over the last year, tribal college officials have worked closely with the NSF-backed Advanced Networking-Minority Serving Institution (AN-MSI) program and the Dandin Group, a Black-owned Silicon Valley wireless networking company, to install a broadband wireless network for computing and telecommunication needs at the Turtle Mountain College and reservation. A new wireless network infrastructure, which promises to make the tribal college the main Internet service provider for the 14,000 member reservation community, has improved Internet access at test sites on the reservation and the college, according to officials. In addition to high-speed Internet access, the new infrastructure has capacity to allow the reservation to establish a new telephone system for its residents.
Like most organizations, higher education institutions, typically rely wholly upon terrestrial-based, wired networking infrastructures to gain access to the Internet and to deploy the campus network. At a growing number of schools, including historically Black colleges and universities, IT departments have developed wireless networks as a companion to their wired systems. The AN-MSI initiative, however, seeks to demonstrate that wireless networking systems in place of wired systems can yield lower costs and higher quality service for remote, rural-based institutions.   
“(The wireless rollout is) still in the pilot stage, but we have seen a tremendous improvement in the quality of Internet access at the test sites,” Monette says.
Dewayne Hendricks, president of the  Dandin Group based in Fremont, Calif., considers the tribal college project a groundbreaking one because it’s demonstrating that wireless networking represents a cost-effective strategy for extending the Internet and Internet-based telephone service to remote locations traditionally underserved by established telecommunication companies. “The economics of wireless (networking) can really work in this kind of rural environment,” says Hendricks, whose firm was hired by AN-MSI officials to install wireless networks at the four campuses.
The four schools are Turtle Mountain; Fort Berthold Community College in New Town, N.D.; Fort Peck Community College in Poplar, Mont.; and Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, N.D. There are 32 tribal colleges in the United States recognized by the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.
Hendricks explains that one of the advantages of wireless systems is that recurring wired-line costs are eliminated, providing as much as a 25 percent reduction in Internet access expenses. Another advantage is that wired systems require an expensive and complete institutional buildout that has to anticipate future demand while less expensive wireless systems are built robust enough to accommodate new users at marginal cost, according to Hendricks.  
The first phase of the Turtle Mountain effort has seen the installation of a wireless infrastructure that will facilitate a high-speed, high-bandwidth connection known as either T-3 or DS3. Cost of the installation was  $50,000, Hendricks said. The campus is seeking an additional $50,000 from the NSF to pay for the switch from a T-1 connection, or 1.5 megabits per second, to a T-3 connection, or 45 megabits per second.
Dave Staudt, the AN-MSI project director, says that while the wireless project is focused on tribal colleges, historically Black and Hispanic-serving institutions in the AN-MSI initiative will benefit from it as well, because minority-serving schools that have remote campuses or branch campuses can learn from the experience of the tribal colleges.
“This is an opportunity to prove that wireless connectivity is affordable,” Staudt says.
The AN-MSI project is in the third year of a four-year, $6 million grant award that has  provided largely technical assistance on campus network architecture issues to the participating schools. The project also has funded training and remote technical support initiatives for MSIs, according to officials. The Washington-based Educause organization, the nation’s largest higher education IT professional association, administers the AN-MSI project.
Hendricks says installation of the wireless systems should get under way by February or  March of 2002 at the remaining three colleges. Information about AN-MSI can be viewed at <www.anmsi.org>. 

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