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PBCI’s new wireless network helps bridge ‘digital divide’

From left, Raymond Wiggins and Stephanie Bryan share a laugh prior to the ceremony.

News Staff Writer

Officials of Poarch Band of Creek Indians, Escambia Community Utilities and wireless provider BearCom jointly announced last week the completion of a $5.5 million project that is already providing high-speed internet service to portions of the tribal reservation and its surrounding area, where poor service or no service at all have been the norm for years.
More than 50 people — including Escambia County Commission Chair Raymond Wiggins and Tribal Council members Charlotte Meckel, Sandy Hollinger and Keith Martin — were on hand November 2 to witness the formal unveiling of PBCI’s new Wi-Fi network, which features 11,040 feet of network cable and approximately 38 square miles of coverage area.
According to a press release issued at the ceremony, the new network already benefits approximately 500 tribal citizens, as well as some residents of the local community surrounding the reservation.
Josh Thomas, Utilities Executive Director for Escambia Community Utilities, was the first of four speakers to provide information and comments on the venture, which began 14 months ago.
“As you all know, our lives are impacted multiple times a day by internet and access to internet,” Thomas said. “Whether it’s Wi-Fi on your cell phone, social media, accessing your security cameras at home, streaming tv shows, doing online schoolwork, we’re all affected daily.”
Thomas added that the effort to enhance and widen the network will continue until such a need no longer exists.
“Living and working here in rural Alabama, we don’t always have internet service,” he pointed out. “In fact, some communities and neighbors here still don’t have internet service. We’re working with tribal leadership and BearCom to bring new solutions to the table that can impact our community, right here in Poarch.”
Tribal Chair and Chief Executive Officer Stephanie Bryan explained that the effort to bring quality, high-speed internet to the Poarch reservation evolved from a national online event for which she was the principal.
“I was the host of this national event, with the (U.S.) Speaker of the House, and we lost connectivity,” Bryan said. “How embarrassing.”
She also talked of the pride she feels over the progress being made at the place where she spent most of her childhood. Her remarks were amplified by the sound of construction activity as work commenced on the new PBCI Cultural Center that is being built next to the Pow Wow Grounds, where the unveiling took place.
“It seems like we’re always at ribbon cuttings, which is a good thing, especially knowing that I grew up and my home place is still in existence right here at the Pow Wow Grounds,” the tribal leader said. “This area — we used to play kickball here — was nothing but red dirt. There are a lot of great memories here in this community.”
She closed with praise for Thomas and his employees, BearCom — North America’s largest provider and system integrator of wireless voice, video and data systems — and everyone else involved in the project, which she said will continue to spread beyond the boundaries of Poarch’s tribal lands.
“It does take a village to raise a child, but it takes a great team to do great projects of this magnitude,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “I look for this to continue to grow, even outside the realm of the reservation, and I was just told, we have some people (already) receiving the service who are not tribal members. This is about community and tribe, and all of us working together so that we can be ready for the next phase of technology.
“Our primary objective with investing in high-speed internet solutions was to enhance our community’s capacity to learn, connect, and foster a technological future that would facilitate work force development.”
After commenting that Bryan was “a hard act to follow,” Martin gave a few more details on the origin of the wireless network and explained further just what implementation of the new system meant to Poarch and the surrounding area.
“We started this when (Bryan) lost connectivity on that meeting, and quite frankly I got tired of watching the circle on my television at home,” we said. “We knew there was a problem. We kind of skipped our feasibility study because we felt like all the problems we were having was our feasibility study.
“One day, I was sitting in my office, and the desktop phone rang — hardly anybody calls you on a desktop phone anymore — and it was a guy from BearCom. (The late) CFO Tim Spiegel and I got together, talked about it and decided we can probably do this. We’re several years ahead of the other rural areas of Alabama by doing this. With the system we have, if a tree falls across a power line, it’s not going to go down.”
Mike Owens, Chief Technology Officer for BearCom, which provides service to several Native American tribes in the U.S., said the company was proud to be part of such a project, which includes a telecommunication hub site that he said would help provide “a seamless user experience with unparalleled connectivity.”
“For us, it is about helping communities overcome the digital divide, reach digital sovereignty, and enable their members with access to fundamental resources,” he said.