Native Sun News: Northern Cheyenne Tribe gets cell service

The following story was written and reported by Clara Caufield, Native Sun News Correspondent. All content © Native Sun News.

The flag of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. Photo from Facebook

Northern Cheyenne Reservation soon to get cell phone service
By Clara Caufield
Native Sun News Correspondent

LAME DEER, Mont. –– A "COW" (Cell Phone on Wheels) arrived in Lame Deer, Northern Cheyenne Reservation on April 27, paving the way for cell phone service in the Lame Deer community by mid-May and the other four communities on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation within the next year. Until this development, the Northern Cheyenne Reservation has been one of the "dead" spots in southeastern Montana without cell phone service.

Tribal council members Merlin Sioux, Lame Deer and Tracy Robinson, Ashland have been key movers on the cell phone project but they credit the entire council for making it possible.

"Cell phone service is not just a convenience," said Sioux, helicopter pilot with considerable fire-fighting and rescue experience. "It is essential for emergency situations. Lives can be saved by cell phones. That is one reason I am very happy we finally got this project up and running."

"The Tribal Council Economic Development Committee worked on getting cell phone service since 2000 through a on a number of federal and state grants," Robinson explained. "When I got elected in 2008, it became clear that the options they were pursuing were not feasible. During my travels I became aware of the Commnet Company which provides services on several other reservations. It has taken time, but Northern Cheyenne and Commnet now have a 50/50 business partnership which will bring cell phone service to the reservation, very much needed. And, once the construction phase is paid off, the Tribe will begin receiving half of the net profits, which can be significant to help us address community needs."

The project is under the oversight of the Tribal Council Economic Development Committee currently chaired by Robinson. Reaching that business agreement took considerable man hours and corporate investment according to Robinson and Rich Pianalto, Commnet construction manager.

In conjunction with Commnet, the Tribe secured a 2.3 million FCC grant which will cover construction of five cell phone towers to provide Reservation-wide coverage. The "Cow" currently being set up in Lame Deer is a temporary measure to start the service Pianalto explained. Such portable devices are typically used in emergency situations such as massive wild land fires or for special events in remote areas.

The COW enables cell phone communication within a range of 5-7 miles, he clarified. When connected to a server/cell phone switch in Castlerock, Colorado, cell phone service will be available in Lame Deer by mid-May if everything goes as planned. The 96 foot COW tower is temporary, currently located just off Cheyenne Avenue in Lame Deer to start cell phone service until a permanent cell tower is constructed this summer.

The publicly traded company is headquartered in Beverly, Massachusetts but has far flung operations in about twelve states, Bermuda, the Caribbean Islands and South America including several Indian reservations (Navajo, Hopi, White Mountain and Jicarilla Apache).

"We have a very large presence on the Navajo reservation," Pianalto explained. "One of our popular products is the Lifeline Phone providing basic service for low-income customers."

When Commnet is operational, customers with Verizon, AT&T, T Mobile and Sprint phone systems will be able to receive phone service on the reservation, subject to various roaming fees. When the towers are completed, the company will conduct a massive reservation marketing campaign for its Choice cell phone.

Pianalto also said Commnet will most likely work with an existing business on the reservation to sell its products on a commission basis. When the construction is completed, a tribal member will be hired for on-site management, Robinson said.

Between now and next summer five cell phone towers will built on the Reservation including: Lame Deer; Busby; the Ashland/Lame Deer Divide along highway 212; outside of Ashland and about 4 miles outside of Birney, the most remote reservation community. Those sites will be located on tribal lands set aside by the tribal land authority on a long-term no cost lease as part of the Tribe’s investment. Commnet promises to hire tribal members during the construction process said Pianalto.

Jim Atchison, Director of the Southeastern Montana Economic Development Corporation, Colstrip was elated to learn about the upcoming cell phone service on the Reservation.

"Cell phone service and internet connectivity are the backbone for economic development in rural areas," he said. "This will greatly enhance development potential along the Highway 212 corridor and for the upcoming Otter Creek Coal mine in the Ashland area. This is very good news for the Northern Cheyenne people, our neighbors and partners in regional economic development."

(Clara Caufield can be reached at

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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