RED CLIFF, Wis. (AP) — A Native American tribe in Wisconsin is starting construction on a cell tower that’s part of a multibillion-dollar effort to build a nationwide public-safety broadband network meant to improve emergency communications.
The Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa broke ground on the 300-foot tower on its reservation on Wednesday, Wisconsin Public Radio reported.
The tribe is working with AT&T and the First Responder Network Authority, an independent agency established by Congress in 2012. The project has been in the works for more than a decade.
The tower is meant to improve communications on the reservation and among places along the tip of northern Wisconsin following the drowning deaths of four family members in the Apostle Islands last summer. The family’s calls for help while kayaking on Lake Superior went unanswered for hours because of poor cell service.
Tribal, state and federal officials observed a moment of silence during a groundbreaking ceremony held to honor the lives lost and those who could have been saved by improved cell coverage in the area.
Rick Peterson, Red Cliff tribal chairman, said the tribe “was sick to our stomachs” following the deaths of Eric Fryman and his three young children last year.
“You just sit down and you say, ‘God, if we could have only done this a month ago,'” Peterson said. “But, our hearts and prayers go out to that family, and they’ll always be remembered, and we’ll always have them in our thoughts.”
He said the cell tower will avert future tragedies.
The independent authority will provide about $6.5 billion in initial funding to build the nationwide broadband network.
AT&T has spent about $700 million to improve emergency communications across Wisconsin over the last three years. The wireless carrier and TV provider is expected to spent about $40 billion on its public-safety network, according to the independent authority.
Janet Sievert, a spokeswoman for the Office of Native Affairs and Policy at the Federal Communications Commission, praised the project for improving communication on tribal lands.
“We know how important this is for economic development and education and the thriving of the tribes,” she said.