Quinault Indian Nation to close ‘digital gap’ with new cable landing station

Tribe launches Toptana Technologies, will help to provide broadband internet to under-served communities

Aiming to narrow the “digital divide” in under-served and rural communities, the Quinault Indian Nation announced Wednesday its plan to construct an indigenous-owned subsea cable landing station on the Washington Coast — the first of its kind — with the launch of Toptana Technologies, a Quinault-owned business venture and network provider.

New subsea cables haven’t landed in Washington in over 20 years, according to a press release from the Quinault Indian Nation.

Construction will begin in mid-to-late 2023, according to the press release, a few miles north of Ocean Shores. The station should be operational by 2025, providing industry-standard internet connectivity to both tribal and non-tribal communities on the coast.

Cable companies will then be able to connect cables from the Asia-Pacific region to the local landing station. The station will allow companies — stemming from Toptana’s “backhaul” network of infrastructure — to provide high-speed internet to Grays Harbor, including Hoquiam, Aberdeen and Montesano, and eventually stretching to the Interstate 5 corridor and linking to other landing stations near Seattle and in Hillsboro, Ore.

Toptana is a Quinault word meaning “beach” or “coastline,” Tyson Johnston, head of development for Toptana and former Quinault Indian Nation vice president, told The Daily World in an interview.

Johnston said the landing station project was born out of a technology initiative the tribe started in 2017 with the goal of advancing tech services for people in outlying communities. According to data from the Federal Communications Commission, the press release states, 97% of Americans in urban areas have access to high-speed internet compared to just 65% in rural areas and 60% of people on tribal lands.

Grays Harbor County fits that mold — over 10% of households lack internet access, one of the highest rates in the state, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“On the reservation, there’s poor infrastructure — a majority of our communities are either unserved or under-served,” Johnston said in an interview.

The digital divide only became “more expanded and poignant” during the pandemic when remote work and education were essential, Johnston said.

He said the Quinault Indian Nation has created a microwave network to boost digital access, but that has only reached 25% of industry standard connectivity, at best. He said it became apparent new infrastructure was the solution, leading the tribe and Toptana to pursue ocean fiber — a source supplying 90% of the broadband internet on the planet today.

The tribe became aware of potential for a landing station through its relationship with the Port of Grays Harbor, Johnston said.

In 2018, the Port and the Grays Harbor Public Utility Department contracted with Sound and Sea Technologies to produce a feasibility study. The goal, according to Alissa Shay, project lead for the study, was to determine if Grays Harbor could host a cable landing station, as well as the most suitable locations to do so.

Johnston said the study piqued the tribe’s interest.

“QIN saw a great opportunity and conducted our own feasibility study for a cable landing station on our nearly 30 miles of coastline and surrounding coastal property locations,” Johnston said in the press release. “With careful consideration of environmental resources and concern for the fishing industry, we determined that QIN territory was a highly feasible landing point and one which uniquely overcame the challenges previously identified.”

Building new cable landing stations is difficult, Johnston said, and rare in Washington state. Many plans, like the port’s, die before coming to fruition. The tribe, however, was in a unique position partially due to its sovereignty, its role as a co-manager with the government for natural resources and its access to coastline.

There are only three landing stations in Washington state, all located on Puget Sound and over two decades old. During those two decades, Oregon and California have laid 14 cables of their own.

Washington’s high taxes for the energy industry along with high costs of the assembly of raw materials required for fiber cables — copper, nylon, steel and, of course, fiber — has made development difficult, he said, requiring large investments from developers. Details on the exact size and cost of Toptana’s new landing station aren’t available, but new subsea cable projects usually run up to hundreds of millions of dollars.

And according to Toptana’s website, local, state and federal governments heavily regulate cable landing stations — each one must be licensed by the Federal Communications Commission and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

By nature, subsea cables and landing stations — a network of infrastructure buried in the ocean floor and underground — come with a risk for environmental disruptions. Developers must abide by environmental regulations, like those created by a number of marine sanctuaries on Washington’s coast, something Johnston said the tribe paid extra attention to when considering plans for the station.

“Our property is actually located south of that so we don’t encumber or overlay with any of the marine sanctuary restrictions that exist,” Johnston said.

“It’s central to the tribe to be very protective and good stewards of the land and good stewards of our resources,” Johnston said. “We take all of those processes very seriously. It’s something that’s paramount and central to Toptana’s formation — respecting the environment and doing our development in a way that also protects our resources.”

Beyond access to broadband for underserved communities, cable landing stations spark regional economies, the press release states.

At launch, the landing station will support four subsea cable customers with cables stretching to different land masses across the Pacific, but has the capacity to support 16 customers over time. The subsea cables themselves, Johnston said, will be funded and deployed by the digital communication companies themselves.

Increased access to digital tools, according to a study from Amazon Web Services and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, could add $116.7 million to annual wages and nearly 2,500 jobs per year in Washington state alone.

“It’s our goal to eventually expand in the future, develop a good model and share our best practices with our neighbors, both in rural communities and tribal communities,” Johnston said.

For more information about Toptana Technologies and the cable landing station, visit toptanatech.com.

Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 or clayton.franke@thedailyworld.com.