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It took Gabriela Perales three months to get internet service installed in her northeast Nebraska home. The connection was unreliable—dropping for days at a time—and weeks would pass before someone showed up to fix it. So in March she canceled it.
Perales belongs to the Winnebago Tribe, a community of about 5,000 stretched across almost 200 square miles in the Great Plains, and her experience isn’t an outlier. As a group, Native Americans are the country’s poorest— with more than twice the poverty rate of Whites—and the digital gap is also stark. Conservative estimates show more than 18% of indigenous people lack internet access, compared with about 4% of people in non-tribal areas.
Congress, championed by the Biden administration, has made a historic investment in connecting all Americans to the internet, including $3 billion for tribal governments to expand broadband access. Most agree it’s only a step in the right direction.
Remote, scarcely populated tribes have struggled to attract internet service providers, and the pandemic problems that challenged all communities were exacerbated for many Native Americans. Already deep unemployment spiked, what had been substandard health care access worsened, while schools and families lacked the technology or means to make remote education successful.
Commerce Department officials this month traveled to Nebraska to announce a $35 million grant that will enable the Winnebago Tribe to install high-speed internet fiber-optic cable, directly connecting 602 households, 40 businesses, and 16 anchor institutions. In many ways, though, the funding is just seed money, enough to pull tribal communities into the digital age.
“Tribes have to think about how the connectivity is going to sustain in the long-term, either through other funding sources or a business case,” said Evelyn Remaley, the former acting administrator of the department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which has facilitated $1.3 billion to 94 tribal entities through the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program. “Once those networks are put in the ground—or maybe it’s wireless —it requires constant investment to continue.”
Native American populations historically have been undercounted, including in the most recent 2020 census. The bulk live in states west of the Mississippi, though they’re present in East Coast states such as New York, Florida and North Carolina as well. The majority live outside of roughly 300 reservations.
Together they represent a small percentage of the total population, and it’s not a politically potent or unified group. So even though last year’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (Public Law 117-58) included $42.45 billion in grants for states and territories—called the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program—indigenous communities tend to be at a disadvantage because they aren’t as savvy in competing for funds.
“Tribes are left out because they’re the hardest to get to,” said Matthew Rantanen, who directs an effort to connect southern California tribes called the Tribal Digital Village Initiative. “I’m happy there’s this much money flowing but there’s a lot more to be done.”
John Kealoha Garcia, an official with the Nation of Hawai’i, a group that seeks independent status for islanders, described having to “jump through hoops” to get through the federal broadband grant application process and understand the needs of networks.
“A lot of detailed information is required and it’s challenging just having the skills to answer all the questions, for example, about who contractors were going to be but we hadn’t gotten there yet,” Kealoha Garcia said.
Senators and advocacy organizations say the broadband gap is aggravated by a lack of cultural competency in the federal government and private sector. Natalie Campbell, senior director for North American government and regulatory affairs for the Internet Society, a global nonprofit that works to connect all people to the internet, described reports of internet service providers digging trenches in sacred Native American sites, taking communities by surprise.
“I am worried that NTIA has zero expertise in tribal matters first and second in native Hawaiian matters,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) told NTIA Head Alan Davidson at a June 9 hearing. “You guys don’t even know the basics about the relationship between the federal government and native Hawaiian people.”
The government has made an effort to offer tribal communities technical assistance and take cultural competency into account. The notice of funding opportunity for NTIA’s Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program requires applicants to explain how they will comply with environmental, historic, and cultural preservation in the land they seek to build a network in.
But the pandemic only widened the existing gaps, punishing broadband-deprived communities more than most.
Educators in native communities in Alaska were so unequipped they started spending Covid relief funds on copying machines just so they could print lesson plans for kids to pick up at their school’s front door, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said.
“Many of Alaska’s rural communities, we didn’t have the broadband in the first place to turn to when Covid hit,” she said in a hallway interview in the Capitol. “There was either spotty internet, unaffordable internet, or no internet at all, so we are seeing significant learning gaps.”
The same has been true in Nebraska.
After the coronavirus shuttered schools in 2020, Jade LaPointe, a third-grade teacher at Winnebago’s elementary school, would drive to her students’ homes to drop off lesson packets and try to corral their parents for phone calls to relay instructions. If the parents were at work, LaPointe said, she had to teach grandparents how to use a computer and help their grandchildren get online.
Even when they got kids in place for remote learning, a lagging and buffering connection made it difficult to understand what students were saying.
“It was mentally draining,” LaPointe, now the school principal, said in an interview at her office.
More than in any typical year, she said, a higher percentage of children failed during the pandemic and have been forced to repeat a grade.
The needs of the Winnebago Tribe made it a candidate for the infusion of federal funds. On Oct. 11, tribal leaders gathered with Biden administration officials at the tribe’s Sweetwater Café in Winnebago, about 72 miles north of Omaha.
Tribal Council member Louis Larose, 80, opened with a prayer.
“We thank you, father, for the people that surround us, the technology they bring, and a new day,” he said.
With the funding, the tribe is partnering with Olsson, an engineering firm, to design the fiber network linking the community, its businesses, and institutions. The NTIA grant will cover construction costs and initial maintenance. It will take approximately two years to get the network up and running.
Brandon Stout, director of the tribe’s internet technology services, said his team has yet to come up with a long-term business plan. Tribe Chairwoman Victoria Kitcheyan said the community is well-positioned to ensure long-term connectivity.
Separately, training is underway to teach tribe members how to operate a network. That includes teens such as Eugene DeCora, 16, who spent his summer working at the tribe’s IT department through a youth employment program.
DeCora’s family hasn’t been able to afford internet service, so he’s relied on the school’s “achievement center” WiFi to do homework. He’s come to appreciate how critical access is for young people.
“Now that I know more about it, I can teach it to my younger siblings and they can use those resources to do a lot more,” he said.
Other tribes are taking similar initiatives. And in Washington, lawmakers including Schatz and Murkowski are calling on federal agency officials to more closely coordinate and regularly engage with tribal governments.
The Tribal Broadband Bootcamp aims to teach tribes across the country a business model in which they own their infrastructure and learn how to build, maintain, and troubleshoot their own wireless networks.
The effort began last year with a small group gathering in southern California for three days. Each tribe in attendance had received a Federal Communications Commission license to access 2.5 GHz spectrum. Three more bootcamps have been held this year, reaching 20 different tribes.
This week, tribe members, leaders, network operators, researchers, and policymakers will gather in Winnipeg, Canada for the annual Indigenous Connectivity Summit, where the broadband bootcamp was introduced.
The summit, launched in 2017 by the Internet Society, has offered more than 350 participants guidance for how to apply for government funding opportunities and technical training on building and operating networks. This year, the summit will include a session on how to access the infrastructure broadband money called “Funding is here. How do you actually get it?”
At the end of the summit, participants agree on policy recommendations to guide advocacy for the following year. The 2021 policy recommendations included fostering greater engagement between the government and indigenous communities by looping in tribes in the early planning of any project or policy that may affect their communities or land and training internet service providers on the culture, sacred sites, and norms before deploying service.
Through networking and practical training, the summit has enabled the construction of 18 tribal-led broadband networks in the US and Canada. In 2019, the summit provided webinars and applications for an Federal Communications Commission program that gives tribes direct access to unassigned broadband spectrum over their lands. More than 400 tribes applied for a license, and almost two-thirds had received one through August 2021.
The new grant opportunities in the infrastructure law and the experiences of community network operators that have applied for funding will be a highlight this year.
Getting the money is only half the battle. Once tribes are awarded grants, they will need to come up with long-term business models that don’t depend on internet service providers to close the digital divide.
“There’s still work to be done to make sure this money is used in a way that empowers Indigenous communities to drive internet connectivity solutions that address their unique needs,” Campbell said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Maria Curi in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org