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Luxury to Necessity: How Toptana is Becoming Part of the Solution to the Digital Divide

Luxury to Necessity: How Toptana is Becoming Part of the Solution to the Digital Divide

Not too long ago, access to the internet was likely, by many, considered to be a luxury. With the emergence of new technologies such as 5G, AI, AR, VR, self-driving cars, and IoT – not to mention the realities of at-home learning and working during Covid-19 – this outdated view has evolved to reveal that high-speed broadband access is a basic necessity to participate in our modern world.


Quick Take:

  • The digital divide is defined as the gap between those that have access to modern information and communications technology and those that do not. 
  • The digital divide gap continues to widen with the advancement of 5G and other emerging technologies; it is evident in indigenous and rural communities. 
  • Company digital divide programs that giveaway computers and offer STEAM education are helpful, but for many, critical infrastructure development in their communities is what is needed most.
  • New cable landing stations (CLS) have not landed in the State of Washington in over 20 years. The Quinault Indian Nation (QIN) is embracing the opportunity to offer a new, diverse route to subsea customers, coupled with an open and neutral backhaul network that is bridging the gap in the critical digital infrastructure needed for the Pacific Northwest area and beyond. 
  • The land-based fiber backhaul installed for the CLS will provide additional benefits locally, enabling connectivity that will substantially improve access to underserved areas, while also serving as an open and neutral solution that can be seamlessly accessed by government, enterprise, and commercial customers alike.
  • More info on the digital divide and what Toptana is doing to help bridge the gap can be found in our 28-page, interactive ebook: Bridging the Digital Divide.
High-speed Internet: Luxury or Necessity? 

Not too long ago, access to the internet might have been considered a type of luxury – a convenience for school and work, but not an essential element in daily life for most. But that fact has changed rapidly as technology improved and growing numbers of people began integrating internet use into their daily lives, first, as the popularity of PCs grew, and later, as smartphones transitioned from being high-tech gadgets to being in the hands of over six billion people worldwide. Between 2000 and 2020, global internet usage ballooned from 5.8% to 64.2% of the world population, all while adding over 1.5 billion people to the planet.

Society and technology have advanced and intertwined to become inseparable and co-dependent – making internet connectivity an essential part of daily living. We now rely on the internet to support education, research, healthcare, and emergency response systems and provide opportunities for personal, professional, and economic development. Some might go as far as to argue that dependencies now make the internet as essential as electricity.

And now, with the emergence and growing adoption of new technologies such as 5G, AI, AR, VR, self-driving cars, and IoT – and with the added connectivity demands of at-home learning and working during the COVID-19 pandemic – high-speed broadband access is now a basic necessity to participate in our modern world. Those without it risk getting left increasingly far behind. This inequality is the digital divide that affects the quality of life and opportunities for some people – particularly those in tribal nations and other rural communities.

The Digital Divide: What is it?

The digital divide was a term that began being used in the mid-1990s, broadly referring to the gap between demographics and regions that have access to modern information and communications technology (ICT) and those that don't or have restricted access. This technology can include telephone, television, personal computers, and internet connectivity. In recent years, the digital divide primarily refers to the gap between those who have access to high-speed, broadband internet and those who do not. 

“Simply having rudimentary access to the internet versus high-speed, reliable fiber optic connectivity are two very different things. Parts of our community are “connected” with dial-up speed equivalent connectivity, while others are without even this basic connectivity. The ability to participate in the digital economy is a real challenge that the Quinault Indian Nation and surrounding communities face daily." - Tyson Johnston, Head of Toptana Development, Quinault Indian Nation 

According to the FCC, 97% of Americans living in urban areas have access to high-speed internet compared to 65% in rural areas and 60% on tribal lands. That amounts to nearly 30 million Americans whose access to the benefits of the digital age is lagging behind from the digital age.

We’re facing even more of a disparity globally. According to an International Telecommunication Union report, the internet penetration rate in developed countries is 87%. The rate in developing countries is 47% and the rate in the least developed countries is only 19%. That means much of the world’s population is living without access to telehealth, remote learning and work opportunities, information and research capabilities, cultural preservation and archiving, and a means for connection. The power of technology is a catalyst for positive change, giving access to invaluable resources and supporting business, economic, social, and educational development – and, above all, improving the quality of life of people and communities. Reliable connectivity should be available for all. 

Unfortunately, the digital divide was only exacerbated by the pandemic, suddenly making the entire world more reliant on internet connectivity than ever before. For those in underserved areas, students were unable to fully participate in virtual lessons, leaving them falling behind in school and disconnecting them from their peers. People who lost their jobs were unable to search for new ones, those who fell ill and could not be seen for in-person care at facilities already at maximum capacity were unable to access telehealth services, and the strains of pandemic life caused a rapid decline in overall mental health. Even as the world has, in some ways, returned to normal after the pandemic, many communities continue to suffer from these effects today. 

Regions that are considered unserved or underserved from a high-speed broadband perspective – like the territory of the Quinault Indian Nation –– have felt these same damaging effects of the digital divide. From school students to healthcare access, the divide widened as the pandemic went on.

When schools were shut down and students across the country turned to computers and iPads for lessons, QIN access to these online learning opportunities was inconsistent and unreliable due largely to the lack of connectivity in and around the reservation.

“Virtual learning was essentially non-existent during height COVID for our members. Instead, parents became home-school teachers overnight. I'm sure many parents could relate - our kids suffered deeply without the ability to connect with their teachers throughout that time. It was only exacerbated by the lack of reliable internet connection within our community." - Andrea Halstead, COO, Quinault Indian Nation

Healthcare demands during the pandemic were also deeply impacted. Diabetes and other chronic illnesses are more prevalent among indigenous people and coupled with the influx of COVID-19, formed a lack of adequate resources to support the community. According to a study at Princeton University, researchers found that COVID-19 mortality rates were 2.8 times higher in indigenous communities than within the general population. For many, the lack of access to even basic telehealth services could have lessened the strain on the healthcare system and provided people with adequate care, perhaps impacting the overall mortality rate for these at-risk patients.

The Opportunity: Create the Critical Infrastructure to Bridge the Gap in the Digital Divide 

While there are several reasons the digital divide exists today, one of the biggest drivers is the significant investment required by businesses to build infrastructure in remote areas. This issue of funding requires an ideal partnership of public and private entities to work together to obtain funding and shoulder the work  – and cost – together. Finding the right partner for these complex, costly, and often lengthy projects can be challenging when the population density in an area doesn’t meet the threshold of potential customers that would be necessary to justify the expense. 

Geography also plays a role. Satellite solutions, though sometimes used to provide internet access in remote areas, are not always a feasible option. Though satellites circumvent the need to physically build out infrastructure in rural areas and challenging terrain, the limitations of weather and other factors inherent to the Pacific Northwest affect the quality and reliability of satellite-based internet, ruling it out as a possible solution for stable, high-speed access. 

Having exhausted alternative options for quality internet access, developing capital-intensive infrastructure is the only remaining option in remote areas of the Pacific Northwest. Yet despite this consensus, it has been cost-prohibitive for private entities in regions like the Olympic Peninsula to move forward with any such plans. 

One of the essential elements to add capacity to telecom infrastructure is access to the core of internet connectivity – the “first mile” of fiber optic cable – subsea cables. These cables connect to land-based networks in order to provide the necessary bandwidth for the “middle mile” and “last mile”. To keep up with demand and with technological improvements, new cables need to be laid, and proximity to these cables – which make landfall in facilities called cable landing stations (CLS), is essential for land-based networks to function. New subsea cables have not landed in the State of Washington for over 20 years, lagging behind states such as California and Oregon, and the existing declining infrastructure has been a widespread concern, even maintaining existing connectivity demands in the state. Facing these mounting concerns, organizations began to take action to explore building new cable landing stations in the state. Numerous feasibility studies have been conducted throughout the years in Washington, but none have identified a suitable location. Seeing these results and recognizing the potential for such a project of their own, our QIN leadership conducted a feasibility study for a cable landing station on QIN’s 27+ miles of coastline and surrounding coastal property locations.

The results of the study proved there was an unprecedented opportunity. QIN’s abundance of underdeveloped land, once seen as a disadvantage for economic development, and its adjudicated ocean rights 30 miles into the ocean are just two reasons the development of a new cable landing station and the formation of Toptana Technologies (Toptana) began to take shape. Starting with a feasibility study completed by Assured Communications, leading to a marine study in partnership with 48 North, and continuing with a cultural resource study with Stell, Toptana’s team carefully considered all angles to ensure minimal environmental or fishing industry disturbance. Industry experts validated these studies and it was determined that QIN land became the targeted landing site for the new subsea cables.

QIN has a long history of successful entrepreneurialism across multiple industries, including manufacturing and hospitality, and is one of the biggest employers in Grays Harbor County. The combination of this engrained entrepreneurial mindset, along with our self-governance authority and determination to create a self-sustaining economy with an eye on the future, made subsea and terrestrial solutions an obvious fit that offered numerous benefits. QIN’s first-hand experience with the challenges of the digital divide, coupled with the unique position of a hybrid public/private entity and the ability to fund such an endeavor set the stage for  the beginning of Toptana Technologies. 

The Solution: First Washington State Cable Landing Station in 20+ Years & First Indigenous Subsea CLS Provider

All factors have aligned to create the first Washington State cable landing station in over 20 years. Industry demand, along with community need, land feasibility, and collaboration of public and private entities, has coalesced into an all-encompassing solution. Toptana will engineer a connectivity solution for the QIN community and others like it, while also making a valuable contribution to the digital ecosystem relied on by billions of people around the globe. 

“As one of only a handful of tribal nations with sovereign jurisdiction in the Pacific Ocean and with our decades of experience in self-regulation and self-governance, the Quinault Nation is poised to offer an innovative solution to help repair the digital divide that has widened since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Toptana will greatly support tribal and non-tribal communities’ ability to access critical digital resources required for healthcare, economic development, education, employment, and more.” - Guy Capoeman, President of the Quinault Indian Nation

While our CLS will enable international growth and contribute to the increasing need for global connectivity, the backhaul network will make the most immediate impact for the local underserved communities.

“The fact that the fiber will be highly connected back to Seattle and Hillsboro will enable connectivity that is needed to create impactful change. The terrestrial fiber will be a middle-mile solution for areas that are currently underserved. Because Toptana will be an open and neutral solution, the fiber can be used by anyone, meaning local government, enterprise, and commercial customers will all have equal access. WISP’s and ISPs will be able to use this connection to upgrade networks and bring high speed internet to places that don’t currently have this necessity.” - Joel Ogren, Assured Communications

This solution is an integral part of our work in closing the digital divide.

In addition, the ICT industry, among many others, will benefit from the diversified perspective of a new market entrant. Toptana will continue the QIN legacy of advocating for environmental best practices that are at the core of the Nation’s heritage, while also utilizing sovereignty to create a business-friendly political environment for technology companies. Toptana is poised to create a diverse and inclusive environment within the region, while developing job opportunities in a booming industry that requires additional talent. 

We see Toptana and our CLS and backhaul network as a gateway to opportunity, not just for QIN and its surrounding communities, but for the greater technology industry. We’re excited to be a part of the advancement.

The Mission: Connectivity for All. 

Backed by the Quinault Indian Nation, Toptana’s solutions will enable a positive effect on many tribal and rural communities. This means closing the digital divide, creating jobs and opportunities for QIN and surrounding communities, continuing to protect the land the QIN people have inhabited for generations and creating a sustainable, future-focused economy for QIN. 

The impact of Toptana will have an ever-growing ripple effect. By providing more households with access to broadband internet, we will improve access to cutting-edge education tools and introduce more young people to STEAM education, giving them the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in school and one day enjoy well-paying, rewarding careers. This will offer underserved and unserved communities access to life-changing telehealth services, entertainment, connection, the possibility of remote work, and more. Having more equitable broadband access will continue to bridge the digital divide and contribute to a more equitable future in all industries.

Final Thoughts:

  • Bridging the gap in the digital divide will not be solved overnight, however, Toptana Technologies will look toward the future and be part of the solution to help rural and indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. 
  • Our subsea and terrestrial network solutions will enable many quality-of-life improvements and get our customers’ traffic to where it needs to go. 
  • Looking forward seven generations, Toptana Technologies is embracing the challenges ahead so that future generations can benefit fully from digital equality and literacy.  
  • More info on the digital divide and what Toptana is doing to help bridge the gap can be found in our 28-page, interactive ebook: Bridging the Digital Divide.

About Toptana Technologies 

Toptana is driven by a vision of a truly connected world. We’re an indigenous-owned internet infrastructure and technology company focused on bringing connectivity to unserved and underserved communities. Our mission is to connect the digitally disconnected so that all people can fully participate in the digital economy. 

Our Washington State cable landing station offers subsea transpacific connectivity from the U.S. to Asia-Pacific markets. The backhaul network offers terrestrial connectivity along the I-5 corridor to Seattle, WA and Hillsboro, OR. We offer businesses the opportunity to get their traffic where it needs to go while protecting our precious resources and improving the lives of those in need.