By RACHAEL REES
Bend Bulletin via Associated Press
WARM SPRINGS, Ore. (AP) -- Ten years ago, only homes in certain areas on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation had telephone service. Soon, many will have access to high-speed Internet, allowing them to access YouTube, Facebook and Netflix.
Community members and government officials gathered Friday to celebrate the start of a new era with a ribbon cutting at the Warm Springs Telecommunications Co., the ninth tribally owned telecom company in the United States.
Time-honored tradition blended with the 21st century as residents performed ceremonial dances and blessed with prayers the new building on Holliday Street that will provide the reservation with new telephone and Internet service.
The telecommunications company will create the infrastructure to help build businesses that can generate revenue and income, said Sal Sahme, director of business and economic development for the Confederated Tribes of Warms Springs -- everything from tourism to Web-based companies operating out of homes.
"It will create the stepping stone to those other kinds of expanded businesses," he said.
Warm Springs Telecom expects to start providing high-speed Internet to area residents in late February, and telephone services by the end of March, said Gabriel Walker, its sales and marketing coordinator.
Walker said towers have been built on Eagle Butte, which will serve the more rural areas of the community, and Miller Flat, which will serve the central area.
Tribal members began planning a new telephone company 10 years ago, and phone service has improved since then, but Warm Springs Telecom will expand it to areas that still do not have it, he said.
Jeannie Brisbois, of Warm Springs, said the slow and unreliable Internet service has made her job at the vehicle pool a struggle for years.
"You're in the middle of something and then the service stops on you or stalls, and then you lose it," she said. "It's time-consuming and frustrating."
Brisbois, 51, said she hopes the new services will allow more people to experience the Internet, and also bring revenue to the tribes and help create jobs.
"I'm excited about faster Internet speeds so people can message each other and look up things without having to wait and wait and wait," she said.
For the past 10 years, members of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs represented other Oregon tribes in statewide efforts to obtain broadband services, said Christopher Tamarin, telecommunications strategist for the Oregon Business Development Department.
"They've been engaged in this whole effort to expand the availability of broadband services throughout the state," he said. "Tribal lands are traditionally underserved areas, so this is a milestone."
Adam Haas, general manager for Warm Springs Telecom, said $5.4 million in grants and loans from the federal government, along with $750,000 from the Warm Springs tribes, helped pay for the project.
While the service will serve only the community initially, Haas said he hopes that one day a fiber-optic ring will surround the reservation, along with fiber optics leading from the reservation to Madras.
The Internet has become the global platform for business and communications, Tamarin said. Broadband Internet access is viewed as essential infrastructure for economic activity, much like roads, bridges and water systems.
"Twenty-five years ago, to be credible in business you had to be in the Yellow Pages," he said. "Today, if you're going to be credible you have to have a presence on the Internet."
Tamarin said the next step will be to have tribal members embrace and use the technology.
"Now the question is, what are they going to do with it, and what's it going to produce?" he said.
Dallas Tonsager, undersecretary for the U.S. Agriculture Department's Rural Development agency, said the services will help improve economic development, education and health care, and it will provide a way for the tribes to share their culture with other communities.
"You think about what broadband does for people everywhere, every day," said Tonsager, who is based in Washington, D.C. "People in their homes have Internet access and email access and communications access and business people can purchase and sell and develop new businesses."
This is one of those very basic things that everybody should have, said Tonsager, whose agency provided the $5.4 million for the project from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Currently, the agency has 300 projects under way to bring broadband to rural areas across the country, he said, but Warm Springs Telecom is one of the first to be built.
"I think what this really does is set a great example for tribal leadership, for community leadership on reservations, that maybe they, too, can take up the cause and help their community."
Information from: The Bulletin, http://www.bendbulletin.com
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.