Mar 20, 2017 — The St. Regis Mohawk tribe has started a company to offer high speed internet to all residences on its territory. Now Mohawk Networks is expanding to provide broadband to other under served communities in northern New York.
St. Regis Mohawk Chief Ron LaFrance says tribal members were stuck with dial-up or staellite internet for years, and it was frustrating and stifled business opportunities. “In this day and age, there should be no community that should not have access to high speed internet.”
So the tribe invested $15 million a few years ago, including $10 million from a federal U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, to create Mohawk Networks, a tribally-owned broadband company. Mohawk Networks ran fiber throughout the reservation, offering hundreds of residences high speed internet for the first time.
But then the Mohawks saw a business opportunity in other isolated parts of the North Country that also lacked high speed access. “So it just made sense to expand out into surrounding communities,” says LaFrance.
Lewis County expressed interest. But it didn’t make sense to use fiber, says Mohawk Networks’ CEO Jeff Beekhoo. “When you’re spending $20,000 a mile laying fiber and you only have four or five homes in an area to cover, the return on investment does not make it feasible.”
What did, Beekhoo says, was to lease 911 towers in Lewis County and beam wifi signals to people’s homes. “So we did activate a tower in Lowville,” says Beekhoo, “which currently has a hundred customers and we did activate one in Harrisville, also which is an unserved area.”
Mohawk Networks, operating outside Akwesasne as North Country Broadband, has been testing since last fall, including at the home of Lewis County’s IT director. “He is about six miles from the tower and his download speed has been very strong,” says Eric Virkler, executive director of economic development in Lewis County.
New York state recently awarded Mohawk Networks $6.4 million to deploy its wifi broadband to serve more than 3,600 homes in Lewis County. It’s part of Governor Cuomo’s push to get high speed to 98% of New Yorkers by the end of 2018.
Virkler says the broadband internet access will help rural businesses and people wanting to work from home, especially on the isolated Tug Hill Plateau. “If their home is in one of those rural areas, which is not unusual in Lewis County,” says Virkler, “then they need to be able to do their job and work from home.”
Mohawk Networks’ high speed packages start at $42 a month. Tribal chiefs say they hope profits from the service will eventually rival casino revenues to bolster the tribal economy.
The company plans to roll out its Lewis County service through next year. Clinton County has already contacted the tribe to be next.