Northeast Minnesota Native American tribe aims to turn the reservation high speed

The Fond du Lac band of Lake Superior Chippewa is getting into the internet business.

The band recently submitted a petition with the Federal Communications Commission to form a telecommunications company called Aaniin, which means "hello" in Ojibwe.

The band's ambitious plan is to provide fiber-to-home high-speed broadband internet service to more than 1,800 homes, and anyone who lives in the network's roughly 120-square mile service area, by 2020 — both band members and non-members alike.

Service is expected to begin at around $50 a month. People who live below the poverty line — which includes about a third of people living on the reservation — will qualify for subsidized rates.

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Broadband may not seem like a big deal to city-dwellers accustomed to high-speed internet service, whether it's via a fiber optic network, cable, or DSL.

But many people who live on and around the Fond du Lac reservation have never had access to high-speed internet in their homes, said the band's planning director Jason Hollinday.

The new system "will help people have small businesses if they need to move files back and forth on the internet, it will help people if they want to go back to school, or students doing their homework," he said. "All these opportunities will be there now that weren't there before."

The band has received $8.9 million in federal and state grants to build the fiber-optic network. It's kicking in $3.5 million of its own funds.

Construction is underway, with about 50 to 100 homes expected to receive service on a pilot basis starting in November. Hollinday said he expects the entire system to be finished in 2020.

While other tribes have contracted with service providers to bring high-speed service to reservations, Hollinday said this will be the first tribally owned and operated high-speed fiber optic service provider in Minnesota.

The Fond du Lac chose to start its own company in part to diversify its economic base, Hollinday said, which is heavily reliant on casino revenue.

"We're trying to make this a showpiece, a model for people to duplicate in their communities, in particular reservations."