NOTE: This article was updated on June 7, 2023, to reflect information from Russell Goff, chief executive officer of Osage LLC.
The Osage Nation and its business arm, Osage LLC, are at loggerheads again. This time, the impasse centers on the broadband network that the Nation is feverishly trying to build on a tight timeline, and the LLC’s alleged refusal to allow the Nation access to its fiberoptic cable that services the Grayhorse, Fairfax and Bowring areas.
Because of the dispute, network cards were removed that make it possible for Osage LLC subsidiary Osage Innovative Solutions to provide internet service through its contractor AtLink. AtLink removed equipment from the Nation’s Welcome Center on June 6 that provided coverage to an undisclosed number of subscribers in Fairfax and Grayhorse. (In December, AtLink provided about 50 households with broadband service.)
A few days earlier, the Nation removed network cards that allowed OIS and AtLink to provide internet service in Bowring, where no one yet subscribes to internet through the Nation’s network, according to tribal Attorney General Clint Patterson.
It appears that at least a few people around Bowring did subscribe to AtLink: On the Bowring community page on Facebook, at least one man bragged about the service on May 26, and others said they were in line to get it installed.
“We had an installation appointment and they called yesterday and cancelled til further notice!” one resident commented June 6.
“Mine is off,” responded the original poster who was thrilled with the service for the few days he had it. “I called yesterday there is a problem with Chief Setting Bear (sic) I was told he pulled the plug and I guess they are in negotiations.”
“Bummer,” said another.
An LLC board resignation, and much finger-pointing
The broadband dispute prompted the resignation on June 3 of one member of the LLC board, Nancy Trumbly Benthien, who Patterson said apparently believed the LLC’s actions were harming the Nation.
Benthien is also the sister of James Trumbly, who is leading the $54 million broadband buildout, called WahZhaZhe Connect. Trumbly is also the former director of OIS. Neither Benthien nor Trumbly could be reached for comment.
Patterson said the Nation and OIS had a memorandum of understanding that allowed the Nation to use some OIS resources and OIS to use some of the Nation’s resources in Bowring and Grayhorse, but OIS unilaterally decided to stop cooperating.
Russell Goff, the chief executive officer of Osage LLC, said in an email that OIS was not, as Patterson said, refusing to abide by the terms of the MOU.
“The MOU ‘appoints’ OIS ‘to provide the management and operational support services to the Nation’ with respect to the broadband network,” Goff wrote. “The Nation has persistently refused to honor the MOU and to recognize this clear appointment.
“The Nation has made it clear since last fall that it intended to breach this MOU when the Nation decided to move forward with its own income-generating broadband network business in competition with Osage Broadband under the guise of a ‘program’ called Wahzhazhe Connect and subsequently put the network management and operation services out for public bid on two separate occasions.
“The MOU grants both the Nation and OIS access to each other’s equipment but it also provides that OIS will operate the Nation’s broadband network once built. No lease terms have been agreed to by the Nation and OIS.
“OIS has instructed its subcontractor, ACRS (which also works for the Nation), not to connect the Nation into the OIS network. The Nation has also refused to allow OIS’s operating business, Osage Broadband, to sign up customers on the Nation’s network and the Nation is withholding funds appropriated by the Osage Nation Congress to Osage, LLC for Osage Broadband expansion.”
‘All ties severed’
The issue blew up after Osage LLC Chairman Frank Freeman sent an email to ACRS, an engineering contractor and minority owner of AtLink, OIS’s partner.
Attorney General Patterson countered that “The Nation made the decision to disconnect OIS connections to Bowring and Grayhorse when we received notice via email from Osage, LLC Chairman Frank Freeman that the Nation had no legal rights to access broadband infrastructure and OIS would not be allowing the Nation to make the necessary connections to OIS’s fiber.
“However, the connections are allowed by an existing MOU (memorandum of understanding) between the Nation and OIS, the same MOU that allowed OIS to connect to the Nation’s infrastructure.
“The shared connections are the most cost-effective means for the Nation and OIS to bring high-speed internet to all of the Osage Nation Reservation, not just Grayhorse and Bowring.”
Patterson added the Nation had hoped the dispute would be just a “bump in the road” that would quickly be smoothed over to the benefit of OIS and the Nation, but OIS decided to dispatch AtLink employees to remove network equipment from the Osage Nation Welcome Center on June 6 – that was the last straw.
“This effectively severed all ties between OIS and WahZhaZhe Connect,” Patterson wrote. “Currently, WahZhaZhe Connect is working on alternatives to the connections contemplated in the MOU, and the high-speed broadband project is still on schedule.”
While the Nation owns Osage LLC and all of its subsidiaries, the businesses operate independently. In terms of broadband service, the Nation owns the broadband network but OIS owns the fiberoptic cable that carries the signal AtLink uses in Grayhorse, Fairfax and Bowring. Both sides are dependent on each other: Without access to the already laid fiberoptic cable to those communities, the Nation will have to come up with expensive workarounds in order to complete its build-out of a high-speed broadband network for all of Osage County, something it is trying to complete within two years of being awarded federal grants totaling $54 million in August and September of 2022. Without the Nation’s network, OIS and AtLink will not have access to hard-wired signal but will have to bounce signals from towers, which is less efficient.
In a press release issued June 2, Goff said OIS was “working to restore service to community centers and customers as soon as possible with the Bowring community center back online today.”
“We are proud of these efforts and recognize these interruptions affect numerous customers within the two regions. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause and are working expeditiously to resume service to all our customers.”
Goff: Nation is displaying ‘callousness’
Patterson said the only service potentially disrupted was the ability to call 911 via voice-over-internet protocol or VOIP, he said: “Everybody uses cell phones anyway.”
In his response to Osage News questions the night of June 6, Goff said the Nation had no clue about how many customers AtLink has in Bowring.
“Any information the Nation offers about Osage Broadband’s affected customers is speculation on the Nation’s part,” Goff wrote. “The Nation is not privy to Osage Broadband’s customer information. There are, in fact, Osage Broadband customers in Bowring that were impacted. Osage Broadband takes seriously its contractual obligation to maintain its broadband network in accordance with its community grants and has taken additional measures to ensure that external influences, like those of last week, will not in the future impact our ability to deliver on our requirements.
“Additionally, the Nation’s implication that disruption of VOIP 911 service is a negligible impact because the Nation believes those calls may be rare demonstrates the callousness with which the Nation has approached this matter.”
Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear had little to say about the matter, noting the dispute has become a legal issue.
“It’s just no cooperation prompted us to shift plans,” Patterson said. “It’s going to end up costing the people in the end, because the broadband is for the people.”