Building and Expanding a Tribal Network for Northern Idaho and Beyond - Episode 578 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast

This week on the podcast, Christopher speaks with Valerie Fast Horse, the IT director and creator of Red Spectrum for the Coeur d'Alene Tribe. Red Spectrum, a broadband company, serves the Coeur d'Alene Reservation in North Idaho, covering nearly 380,000 acres of land.

Chris and Valerie discuss the history of the Red Spectrum and the efforts made over time to upgrade its infrastructure and continue to offer residents high-quality connections – transitioning from fixed wireless to fiber-to-the-home projects.

Valerie also discusses how Red Spectrum has expanded its services over the years, including subscribers both inside the reservation and areas outside of it, as well as barriers to expanding and the challenges of competition from other providers such as Starlink.

Despite the challenges they face, Red Spectrum continues to grow its network and uphold its high customer satisfaction rate, even bringing back subscribers who originally left for Starlink. Chris and Valerie conclude the conversation by emphasizing the importance of personal interest, community involvement, and local talent in building small, successful community broadband networks.

This show is 22 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed.

Transcript below.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

Listen to other episodes or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.


Valerie Fast Horse (00:07):
We've kind of stayed level as far as the number of customers we have, even though we're really, really busy. People who leave, they go to Starlink, but the funny thing is they come back.

Christopher Mitchell (00:15):
Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in St. Paul, Minnesota, and I'm here today speaking with Valerie Fast Horse, the IT director at [00:00:30] the Coeur d'Alene Tribe. Welcome.

Valerie Fast Horse (00:31):
Hi. Great to be here.

Christopher Mitchell (00:34):
It's wonderful to have you on here. You're someone who's been doing great work for a very long time and you're hard to pin down. I think one time we were going to talk, you got several feet of snow.

Valerie Fast Horse (00:46):
Oh, yes. We get a lot of snow here. Luckily, right now it's a nice, sunny, clear day. So actually beautiful building weather. Oh yeah. Weather, like can I build or can I not build?

Christopher Mitchell (00:59):
Yeah, this time of year, you never [00:01:00] know. Right?

Valerie Fast Horse (01:01):

Christopher Mitchell (01:02):
You're in northern part of Idaho. Is there anything else that you might want to share with people about that area? I mean, it's stunningly beautiful, but I don't think you want to tell people that because you don't want more people moving there, I'm guessing.

Valerie Fast Horse (01:15):
No, no. We have enough people. No. So yeah, I live on the Coeur d'Alene Reservation in North Idaho, and we have about 380,000 acres of reservation land that includes [00:01:30] mountains and crops and fields and rivers and lakes and all sorts of stuff. It is really beautiful here.

Christopher Mitchell (01:39):
And you created Red Spectrum, which is a broadband company that serves a majority of the tribe at this point, right?

Valerie Fast Horse (01:46):
Yes. So Red Spectrum was actually was born out of necessity way back when I first started working here for the Coeur d'Alene tribe. That was in 1999. There was no broadband on the reservation back then, [00:02:00] and probably across the United States. Everything was dial up, so you had to dial in, do your thing, log out, dial up. Here was a long distance call, so while we were online, it was totaling long distance rates. The local phone company had not invested in any of the infrastructure here, probably since the first time they placed it. So we couldn't even get 56 K, which was the fastest speed back then on. [00:02:30] So in the year 2000, there was a broadband grant opportunity. It was a pilot project by the U-S-D-A-R-U-S, and they were wanting to build broadband in rural America. I applied for my first grant ever, and we were awarded 2.8 million and we built a wireless company. It wasn't a company at the time, it was a program, a wireless broadband program. And so we took everyone off of dial up and everyone was on, instead [00:03:00] of being 56 K, our slowest speed was 2 56 k, and our fastest speed was one and a half megs per second, which back in those days was like lightning fast. Everyone. We were heroes. Everyone loved us.

Christopher Mitchell (03:14):
I believe it. And I think, do I remember correctly that you got some inspiration from Matt Rantin at the time with Tribal Digital

Valerie Fast Horse (03:21):
Village? I him. I saw what he did, and I'm like, I'm doing that. That's cool.

Christopher Mitchell (03:27):
Well, I think that's really cool, but what's interesting to me is [00:03:30] how few others did it. I feel like you did it, and I'm sure there's a few others, but we're seeing a lot more of it now. But you are really ahead of the curve.

Valerie Fast Horse (03:40):
Oh, yeah. Oh, Matt was ahead and then I followed him, followed the leader.

Christopher Mitchell (03:46):
Well, Matt has a big enough head, so we'll just focus on the work that you've done.

Valerie Fast Horse (03:50):

Christopher Mitchell (03:53):
So I mean, what I find interesting is one of the things you said before we started recording is that in terms [00:04:00] of what you're doing now, it's grant writing. What were you doing then? Grant writing? It's like your work, I think is not as exciting as people might think, not as fun and technological.

Valerie Fast Horse (04:10):
Right. So I don't really like writing grants. Well, that's the love hate thing. I like writing grants because I love what I could possibly do if we get awarded. And so I've been writing grants. That was my very first grant ever. And then after that I was like, okay, I know how to do this. And so I've written several more grants. I wrote a grant to build a radio station, [00:04:30] for instance, which we have a full power FM radio station here right behind me. I've written other grants to upgrade our network. So we set it out with wireless just because that was the quickest, fastest, easiest way to roll out and bring broadband to this part of the reservation. And then later on with the Internet content becoming more heavy and high definition and just really heavy, heavy [00:05:00] content, wireless doesn't cut it for everyone. So we had to switch it up and we applied and received an award to do fiber to the home project. So we did that. And that wasn't the a hundred percent grant. It was 50 50 grant loan. So we're still sitting on a debt service, but we did it. We have fiber to the home now in all the major communities on reservation, which is Plumber Woodley, 10 50 Smith, Conland Park, and we have several more areas that we still want to build out [00:05:30] that we just didn't get to do yet.

Christopher Mitchell (05:32):
Well, I was just reading before we started that you had received the Caress Act funding and like others, you had to figure out how to spend it within the deadlines and the challenges of it. And so I guess I am curious, how have things gone since the pandemic? You obviously are in a much better position than many other tribes who have no significant Internet access and didn't have the sort of talent that you've accumulated [00:06:00] to be able to expand. So how have things gone since it became even more important for everyone?

Valerie Fast Horse (06:06):
So since the pandemic, then suddenly everyone was signing up like, we're going to run out of Internet, almost gone, hurry up, come get it while it's here.

Christopher Mitchell (06:14):
You got to go to the store, grab your Internet, grab your toilet paper and get back home. Right?

Valerie Fast Horse (06:19):
Yeah. That's the last one. You've got the last one. So we've had at least 80 to 90 people in the queue at any given time since then. The [00:06:30] queue never goes down. The more people we hook up, the more people that sign up. But the weird thing is the churn, because then we kind of stayed level as far as the number of customers we have, even though we're really, really busy. Starlink has entered the game and they've stolen a lot of our customers. People who leave, they go to Starlink. But the funny thing is they come back.

Christopher Mitchell (06:53):
Is it a price issue?

Valerie Fast Horse (06:55):
I think they don't get the level of service that they thought they were going to get. starlink advertises a [00:07:00] certain speed, but you just can't do satellites. What we can do here on the ground.

Christopher Mitchell (07:06):
Were you mostly losing your wireless customers to it, or were you also losing some fiber customers?

Valerie Fast Horse (07:11):

Christopher Mitchell (07:12):
Yeah, that makes sense.

Valerie Fast Horse (07:13):
Yeah. But they still come back just because the ping and latency with satellite just doesn't do what we can do.

Christopher Mitchell (07:20):
And now you serve outside of the reservation as well, right? You've expanded where you've had opportunities to.

Valerie Fast Horse (07:26):
Yes. We have a great number of people in Washington [00:07:30] state. We have a tower that hovers and it can see both sides of the border. So we have people who are on the Washington state side who sign up. They have line of sight paying of our towers.

Christopher Mitchell (07:43):
And so how does that work in terms of the revenue? Are you in a position where, are you mainly looking for grants to fund capital expansion or do you need to have grants to help? Yes. So you're able to cover most of your operating costs or all of them?

Valerie Fast Horse (07:57):
All of my operating costs is just grants are just to [00:08:00] build out and expand.

Christopher Mitchell (08:02):
Well, that's a dream for a lot of people. It's a major accomplishment to be able to cover all your operating costs. A lot of folks, I feel like when you start with grant funded infrastructure, I feel like there's a value you get into that's hard to get out of.

Valerie Fast Horse (08:17):
Yeah. Yeah. I appreciated. But the very first grant was that they asked for a seven year proforma, and so they forced us to do the homework before we even got into the game. And so we had to take a hard look at the numbers. It's like, can we really [00:08:30] afford to do this? And if we do, what does it look like?

Christopher Mitchell (08:32):
So what was your background then? I mean, not to come back to Matt, but he was always reminding people. He was a graphic designer who turned into this. What were you doing before? You were obviously the IT director, so you must have had more of a background in the tech at that time.

Valerie Fast Horse (08:45):
So my IT inspiration before Matt came from the military, I was in the Army. I was served in Desert Storm, and I was assigned to the information management division, which we [00:09:00] were in charge of rolling out all the communication and information technology infrastructure, which included telecommunications and included satellite Internet in Marsat is what they were called, included all the workstations, databases, mobile phones back then, which were hooked to your car.

Christopher Mitchell (09:19):
You could use those as a weapon if you needed to.

Valerie Fast Horse (09:22):
Rolling out all of that. And then they said it was the information war, and it started and ended so fast because of information, and that [00:09:30] inspired me. I want to go home and do something for my people surrounding that type of thing. So it was always in the back of my mind When I left the military, I didn't immediately do it. When I got out of the army, I had a hard time getting a job with my tribe. I was missing deadlines. So like, oh, you put your application in five minutes too late. I'm like, oh, shoot. I'll try again. So I ended up working in corporate America. I wasn't a manufacturing company. I was a pure metal operator. I purified metals. [00:10:00] We took metals from four nines and brought 'em to five nines and six nines and seven nines, if you know what that means.

Christopher Mitchell (10:06):
Well, I have a sense that it would be very, very, very pure at that point.

Valerie Fast Horse (10:11):
So five nines is 99.9 hundred, 99% pure, which was not pure enough for us. So we would bring it to a higher levels of purity, six nines and seven nines was our average.

Christopher Mitchell (10:22):
Yeah. If I remember correctly, from telecom, to give people a sense, I think five nines, if you look at that per year is a few hours, is that leftover [00:10:30] amount. And so if that gives people a sense, then you're going from a time unit from hours to minutes per year. That's a purity.

Valerie Fast Horse (10:39):
Yeah. Yeah. Yep. I was working in the manufacturing world for a minute, and then I finally got a job with the tribe. I call it breaking and entering. I came in the back door, I got a job with social services.

Christopher Mitchell (10:53):
And then you got punished and sent to IT. Is that what happened?

Valerie Fast Horse (10:56):
Oh, no, no, no, no. What happened is social services is a job. [00:11:00] It's a field by itself. It's like the parable of the boiling frog. You jump in, you jump out. I could not like it. I still have clients and users, but they're different clients and users in the IT world.

Christopher Mitchell (11:15):
That's one of the things I'm curious about because a lot of people are in a position similar to yours where I feel like they're trying to figure out broadband. You were confronted then with a seven year pro forma, and I'm curious how you went from feeling comfortable with the tech to being a business wizard [00:11:30] with it as well.

Valerie Fast Horse (11:31):
So in the very beginning, when we were a program in the tribe, and we weren't actually in business yet, I was spoiled because the tribe took care of the finances. They paid the bills, I provided the funds, but they paid the bills. They did my HR when Red Special actually broke off in 2016 to become an LLC, and then I had to go out and find my staff to do that. So I always had the technical staff, but I was missing the accounting side of it [00:12:00] and also the HR side. So I had to outsource that, and I still outsource it. I don't have anyone on staff who's doing it. As a matter of fact, today I have an interview with another bookkeeper.

Christopher Mitchell (12:12):
And so is that something you did locally then, or were you were able to find someone in the community that would do it, or how did you find that person?

Valerie Fast Horse (12:18):
I had people in the community, and right now I'm running out of people in the community. Turns out we don't have a lot of people who are fans of being accountants or bookkeepers. And so the talent that [00:12:30] I'm attracting right now is actually from Spokane, Washington, which is a 45 minute drive away from here. He's going to come here today for an initial visit, but we'll, more than likely work remotely most of the time.

Christopher Mitchell (12:42):
Okay. Well, I am curious about the community radio. You noted that, and I'm fascinated by that. I believe it was the first right, community radio tribally owned community radio station. Is that right?

Valerie Fast Horse (12:56):
Yeah. Yeah. So back, I can't remember what was going on. [00:13:00] There must have been some kind of grant or something, and the tribal council asked me if I could look into it and see about building as a radio station. I'm like, oh, sure. I've never done it, but all right, I'll try it. So I went after some P TFT funding, which was the very last PT FT P funding from NTIA and was awarded almost a half a million to build the radio station.

Christopher Mitchell (13:24):
And so what is that used for primarily? Is that something that a lot of people are listening to? [00:13:30] Why is it worth you having done?

Valerie Fast Horse (13:32):
Community radio station is so that you can do locally relevant content. You listen to the radio now and it's in Spokane, Washington or COE d'Alene, but what do they know about the Coeur d'Alene tribe? Do they know that in October we have water potato day? Do they know that we have historical battles and that we have coyote stories in the winter? I mean, what do they know? They don't know that stuff. They don't care. We care. [00:14:00] So it's culturally, locally relevant content.

Christopher Mitchell (14:03):
And do you find that the younger generation is excited to help run the station and make sure there's content coming up and that sort of a thing? Or is it something that they're kind of not into?

Valerie Fast Horse (14:15):
I think the younger generation see it as a dinosaur because they like podcasts, they like TikTok.

Christopher Mitchell (14:23):
See, I love podcasts, but I'm also a big fan of community radio. I like that. Local flavor.

Valerie Fast Horse (14:29):
Yeah. Yeah. [00:14:30] I mean, it's the drive time. You get in the car and you get to listen to something and you hear something different. When you change the station, it catches your attention.

Christopher Mitchell (14:40):
So then one other thing that had popped into my head when I was thinking about what I want to talk with you about is I feel like in the work that we've done with the tribal broadband bootcamps, we were just recently with Mohawk Networks, with Allison Mitchell, and then we came over a little bit closer to you in [00:15:00] Cheyenne River, Sioux Tribe Telephone Authority with Mona Thompson in Eagle Butte. I was trying to remember the name of the town in Eagle Butte. And in both cases, I felt like the tribal owned ISPs felt like they were providing a really important service, and they obviously were, and they're doing a great job, but they felt like in the community, they just kept getting bad reviews in that people didn't want to talk about how great the service was. For a lot of folks, it was more like, well, these people aren't connected, or you had [00:15:30] an outage, and there was just a sense of a lack of respect, I feel like, for what they had accomplished. And I'm curious how, so that's not something you've had to deal with. It seems like

Valerie Fast Horse (15:39):
Very little. I mean, we have more people that are happy with this than are not happy with this. I mean, of course, the unhappy ones are going to be the loud ones and catch everyone's attention. So if I get called to the boss's office, I'm like, yeah, you heard that one unhappy customer. Today. I have 1200 other happy customers.

Christopher Mitchell (16:00):
[00:16:00] And so I'm curious then with where you are, what are the next steps? What challenges do you face after this interview? What are you going to be banging your head against the wall over?

Valerie Fast Horse (16:13):
I'm still looking for funding. I mean, the BEAD coming around the corner, but that's really, really slow. So I'm looking for other opportunities, just I have plans to build out still. I'm still trying to grow the company even without any more infrastructure. There's still room for growth. We only have [00:16:30] a 30% tank rate because of the competition in other areas that we provide service. So maybe just trying to go after some of those other customers that we can serve without more money.

Christopher Mitchell (16:41):
You have a higher tank rate in the areas where you have fiber.

Valerie Fast Horse (16:45):
And so that's the other thing is the Coeur d'Alene tribe is building houses, brand new houses, and so they built out, they're building 30 new units in Worley. They did some units here and some units in the agency. And so we're hooking up all those units with fiber as well. So we're staying busy.

Christopher Mitchell (17:00):
[00:17:00] Yeah, I'll bet. What is your sense of the funding that's available? Will you be able to get anything from the tribal broadband connectivity program? Are you mostly looking at money through the state?

Valerie Fast Horse (17:10):
Don't qualify for the tribal broadband connectivity program. They want us to be listed as a place of high poverty and we're not.

Christopher Mitchell (17:18):
Oh, okay. Well, that's good and bad news, right? Yeah. So then you're looking to try and tap into the state funds. How's that [00:17:30] going in terms of, I

Valerie Fast Horse (17:31):
Struck out.

Christopher Mitchell (17:32):
Oh, really?

Valerie Fast Horse (17:33):
Yeah. I just got noticed about a few weeks ago that we didn't get it.

Christopher Mitchell (17:39):
Well, there will be new funds coming about, but do you have a sense of that the state is just not looking to serve in that area, or because obviously the state worked with you on the CARES Act, so not totally shutting you out historically, at least.

Valerie Fast Horse (17:51):
No. No, they're not. So what it was, it was a point system, and we didn't have enough points. So the areas I'm trying to build out to are just like rural areas, [00:18:00] rural routes, actually, and they weighed a lot of points on if there was a school in the area. Well, there's no schools. These are just little roads here and there that have a bunch of houses on them. There's not a school on that route.

Christopher Mitchell (18:14):
Do you have a line extension program in Idaho? I'm just familiar with that because Minnesota, where I am, we actually have one, and it's so in a grant program, a larger grant program, they're usually looking for, you're describing I think, a larger area, and you might be connecting many [00:18:30] hundreds of homes, or a line extension program is more like you might be connecting five homes over here and 12 homes over there. There's only eight states that have 'em as of right now, but I think we'll see a lot more of those in the future.

Valerie Fast Horse (18:42):
I don't know, but I'm going to find out now.

Christopher Mitchell (18:45):
Yeah, I mean, that's the sort of thing that I feel like is what you're looking for, right? Just trying to fill in gaps, it looks like.

Valerie Fast Horse (18:50):
Yeah. Yeah. Really, that's what I'm trying to do. So I have my major core infrastructure built out, but there's just this little routes here and there that I need to get.

Christopher Mitchell (18:59):
Yeah, I mean, [00:19:00] a lot of us, I think, expect that when the BEAD money is fully expended, there will still be a lot of people left over, but they'll be really scattered. And we think that most states will probably have some kind of line extension to just deal with that. Not like you're going to face a lot of bids to connect five houses.

Valerie Fast Horse (19:17):
Yeah. Yeah.

Christopher Mitchell (19:20):
Well, it's been really great catching up with you. Is there anything else that you want to share?

Valerie Fast Horse (19:24):
No, I just would like to thank you for asking me to be on the air, and this is really a good time, and [00:19:30] it's been a while.

Christopher Mitchell (19:32):
Yeah, I mean, it is exciting just to meet people like you. I feel like who have, I mean, the way you described your story, I feel like you're sort of bouncing around and then you found something, and you've been doing this work for such a long time, making a real difference. I think you've inspired a lot of other people. When I bring your name up, people are inspired by what you're doing. They're trying to do the way you look at Matt and you were like, you do what he did. There's so many people now who I think are looking at you and thinking, God, I hope [00:20:00] we can get to that point. So it's exciting.

Valerie Fast Horse (20:02):
Yeah. Yeah. I would just say to people that performer was a very big deal to look at your business financially in terms of what can you sustain, and then also your local talent. We try to grow our own. My network administrator is from here. I got him straight out of high school and trained him up, had him working alongside a senior network admin and also my broadband [00:20:30] operations manager. He's been around for a long time. He actually built the very first ISP in North Idaho, so I was lucky to get him, and he stayed with us. And then just the rest of the people here, they're all from here. They don't have to have knowledge coming in the gate, but they develop it and they develop a love for the industry, and that's what keeps them there.

Christopher Mitchell (20:51):
How do you know if someone is the right fit for that? And to some extent, I think for some people it's obvious. They're just so good. They fit in and it's great. But [00:21:00] I'm sure you've had people come through who you hoped would work out and they didn't. And so I'm just curious for other people who are trying to do the homegrown approach, what tips do you have?

Valerie Fast Horse (21:09):
I would just say just keep an eye on their morale. If their morale is good, then you know that they love their job, and if they just come in gru and they just hate their job, I am honest with people. I'm like, I don't hold hostages. If you don't want to be here, don't be here. There's hundreds of other jobs somewhere else. I only want people who love their job. Love what you're doing. Other than that, [00:21:30] you're wasting your time.

Christopher Mitchell (21:33):
Excellent. Well, thank you again for speaking with me today.

Valerie Fast Horse (21:37):
You're welcome. Thank you.

Ry Marcattilio (21:38):
We have transcripts for this, another podcasts available at muni Email with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter, his handles at communitynets, follow muni Stories on Twitter, the handles at muni networks. Subscribe to this and other podcast from ILSR, [00:22:00] including Building Local Power, local Energy Rules, and the Composting for Community Podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly While you're there, please take a moment to donate your support in any amount. Keeps us going. Thank you to Arnie Sby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons. This was the Community [00:22:30] Broadband Bits podcast. Thanks for listening.