By JONAH LOSSIAH
One Feather Staff
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) became 100 percent owners of Cherokee Cablevision last November. Now, stakeholders are gathering resources for a complete renovation of the business and its services.
Bill Travitz, director of the Office of Information and Technology, said that there has been a lot of planning to get to this point. He said that aligning stakeholders and acquiring the right funding has been crucial since the Tribe fully purchased Cablevision.
“Since that time, we’ve all been before Council and basically, they allowed a contract for the re-engineering of the outside plant. Which is the existing coaxial cable and there’s a bit of fiberoptic in the network, but it’s basically in the downtown part. It doesn’t really extend out to the entire footprint of Cherokee Cablevision. All that infrastructure is antiquated. It’s all old coax stuff, full analog. You see the quality on Channel 28,” said Travitz.
He said that there are several major pieces to this revamping project. One of them is replacing the outside plant, which is all the wires that are buried or strung from poles and that run across the Boundary. Another is to completely remodel the current building that holds Cherokee Cablevision. The other is to expand upon internet services offered.
Travitz said that they are currently focusing on one facet before embarking fully on this project.
“Funding sources. We have access to ARP and potentially NTIA grant funding. I’ve been involved with rural broadband probably for 15 years on various county committees, so on and so forth. The amount of money that’s now being dumped into this by the Federal Government is unprecedented,” said Travitz.
He said that the Tribe has set aside $20 million for broadband internet and that his team is pushing to earn more grant funding. He said that the hope is to complete this project with no Tribal dollars spent.
“The project is funded. This will be funded, [Tribal leadership] has made that very clear. But we’re just trying to figure out if there is a way to subsidize that with federal dollars,” said Travitz.
He also said they had just come to agreement with Balsam West, which is 50 percent owned by the EBCI, to take over management of Cherokee Cablevision moving forward.
“That includes management of the existing plant, including revamping the building, so on and so forth. And then also to manage the engineering side and eventually the contractors who will do the construction. Basically, they will be the entity managing it for us,” said Travitz.
As part of this move, the Board of Directors for Cablevision is now made up of the Tribal Investment Committee.
Jeremy Brown, IT project management support specialist, said that the team has already been preparing for major action on this project.
“Although that kickoff for the management just occurred [July 28], we’ve been working since about March, when the Vantage Point contract was executed, gathering all the data. Vantage Point has a really good start on the engineering in terms of how it’s all going to lay out, how it’s all going to be connected. They are about to deploy some folks that are about to come onsite to the entire Boundary and basically do what’s called an ACS (Area Coverage Survey),” said Brown.
This ACS will involve workers from Vantage Point riding the roads on the Boundary and taking detailed notes on all the poles and wires. Brown said that they will offer a public announcement whenever this works starts to ensure the community can expect when these workers will be in their area.
Travitz said that the hope is to push out the benefits of this transition immediately, stating that the Qualla Boundary and enrolled members are the top priority.
“We’ve got a huge need here. COVID made it blatantly apparent to everybody involved that we don’t have quality service out to enrolled members. So, that’s our priority, is to get this rolling as quickly as possible,” said Travitz.
He said that they hope to do the construction and engineering in phases to shorten the timeframe for some consumers. Travitz said that as Balsam West is taking over, they are looking for ‘short-term wins’ to get the train going for this project and to excite the community.
“They’re looking at making some immediate improvements to the existing headend hardware to improve the signal quality. But it’s kind of a toss-up. How much do I spend on this old infrastructure when I know I’m going to rip it up and replace it?” said Travitz.
He said that along with improving signal quality, there will be more advantages coming. He said that Balsam West is looking at the possibility of eliminating data caps, but there is no timeline or guarantee for that. Finally, he said that the services offered will be fully symmetric internet, like what is now being provided in Snowbird.
This means that upload and download speeds are the same. Travitz said that this is not true for most providers in the area. He said packages through Cablevision will begin at 25 Mbps, and their customers can potentially purchase up to 100 Mbps.
“Take that and look at what Frontier gives you. If you happen to be out at the end of the cable, a long way from their central office, if you get 1.5 down, you’re lucky. We can at the base package giving you 25/25. And they’re not symmetric, the down speed is faster than the up speed,” said Travitz.
He said that the next step in this overhaul is the transition plan from Balsam West. Travitz said that it’s too early to predict long-term timelines, but that Balsam West is expected to turn over their transition plan to the Board of Directors in the next two to three months. Once that’s ready, the project can truly get underway with all parties in lockstep.