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Bridging the Digital Divide: A Fireside Chat with Dean Nelson & Tyson Johnston

Every aspect of our daily lives relies on broadband internet and the digital infrastructure that supports it. Most people take this infrastructure, and the activities it enables, for granted. But as many as 163 million people in the U.S. alone and billions more around the world don’t have access to broadband internet – because digital infrastructure isn’t available. 

This is the digital divide, and it is widening disparities between those who can fully participate in and benefit from the modern economy and those who can’t.

Infrastructure Masons Chairman and Founder Dean Nelson joined Toptana Technologies Chairman of the Board and Head of Development Tyson Johnston for a chat about building the infrastructure to bridge the digital divide – and doing it sustainably, not for the next ten years, but the next seven generations.

Highlights from the conversation:

“We want to bring digital connectivity for all. Because it’s a necessity, an essential element for our everyday way of life.” Tyson Johnston, Chairman of the Board and Head of Development at Toptana Technologies

On the role Digital Infrastructure Plays in our Life

Dean (starting at 4:21)

Whenever you use anything that is delivering an electronic service, you’re going over a network that goes to a data center that is processing on a compute server and storing on some storage device. And that traversal is basically digital infrastructure. If you think of all that, you use this every day, whether you’re doing TikTok and watching videos to using PayPal – all of those are running over this network and this infrastructure. So it is an absolutely mission-critical component of everybody’s lives.

Back in 2016 [when we founded iMasons] I really wanted to get a lot of my peers into a conversation around our industry. There’s a lot of very well-meaning, purpose-driven, incredibly talented people in the industry, but how do we come together to actually compound the impact? And so that’s why we said, let’s unite the builders of the digital age. And that’s actually worked out amazingly well.

In the last three months I’ve gone to three different continents and had meetings with people all over the place. The same challenges exist in the United States as in sub-Saharan Africa. It still comes down to connectivity. So how do we go back and get access to those people in the right places and make sure that there is actually digital infrastructure to allow them to participate in the digital age? Because if there isn’t, they can’t. It’s just a fact, right? You need digital infrastructure to enable all of these opportunities. 

Tyson (starting at 8:24)

Prior to our investment in this infrastructure, one household in Seattle, Washington, had more connectivity in one residence than the whole 210,000 acre footprint of the Quinault Indian Nation. If it’s not going to be the Nation who will make this investment to make our communities more resilient, we don’t see that happening any time soon. And that’s why we founded Toptana. We want to bring new infrastructure into our state. We want to bring digital connectivity for all. We want that to be seen as a necessity and a utility and no longer as a luxury.

For Native people in particular, and being on the coast, technology gives us more resiliency around issues like climate change and healthcare. We’re especially susceptible to climate change impacts like sea level rise. And so we’ve been looking at smart cable technology and how that will better inform our fisheries management practices and tsunami preparedness. Native people have some of the worst health outcomes of any population on the planet, and so getting medical services here through telemedicine is really going to be life changing for a lot of our people.

On sustainability

“If we’re going to build a couple of hundred gigawatts worth of infrastructure, we must do it sustainably – for the sake of the planet and our people on it.” Dean Nelson, Chairman and Founder of Infrastructure Masons

Dean (starting at 13:20)

iMasons has a sustainability committee and strategic objectives around what we can do to decarbonize digital infrastructure. We currently have 7 million data centers around the world. They have 105 GW of capacity globally. That’s capacity built for us to consume. And it’s growing. If you look at DigitalBridge’s forecast, in the next five years, 38 GW of additional capacity is going to be represented by generative AI workflows. So sustainability is super critical because if we don’t build this sustainably, we’re adding to the problem. And when I say sustainably, that means building net zero target infrastructure day one.

To participate in the digital age you need compute and storage across the network, which all need to be sustainable. Leveraging things like the iMasons Climate Accord you can now have that day one. With the Infrastructure Act in the United States and the sustainability agenda, there are dollars that can be applied to the development of infrastructure that achieves a carbon free future that can grow everybody and accelerates what Toptana is trying to accomplish – taking an underserved community, developing its capacity and enabling its participation in the digital age.

Tyson (starting at 20:17)

Anything we dedicate our energy to, it’s our tribal mindset and teaching that we look seven generations into the future. So when we establish an enterprise like Toptana, it’s not with a profit-for-the-sake-of-profit, very short-term vision. We’re looking 100, 150 years into the future and what kind of a world, what kind of resources, and what kind of opportunities we are planting the seeds for in our future generations. And that’s just a central point of how the Quinault Indian Nation does its business and how other tribal nations, our relatives, do their business – and also, inherently, the goals of Toptana. 

We see the effects of all the carbon that’s in the atmosphere, we’re on the frontlines of that. And so for us to engage with this industry, it’s absolutely paramount that we also are adding our voices to that conversation about decarbonization and influencing the industry as a Native American owned company in spaces where we’ve typically not walked before. And that’s been a pretty exciting part of this journey.

Having native people and tribal nations at the table to talk about our lived experiences, our history, our culture, our science, and bringing those to bear to these spaces is going to be absolutely critical if we do want to see meaningful change to address the decarbonization of this industry, but also how are we creating a better future for our citizens that will ultimately inherit this work that we’re building for them. Everything we do is inherited by our children, and so that’s what Toptana is really centered on.

About Toptana Technologies

Owned by the Quinault Indian Nation (QIN) of the Pacific Northwest, Toptana Technologies is focused on bringing connectivity to unserved and under-served markets. Toptana is developing the first new cable landing station in Washington State since 1999 and backhaul network connectivity from the Olympic Peninsula to Seattle, WA and Hillsboro, OR.

Learn more about how Toptana is working to bridge the digital divide

Check out the interactive ebook at

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