The Backroad to Broadband

Internet is essential for education and economic development, yet many reservation homes still can’t get online. Unable to wait, tribes and tribal colleges are working to provide reliable and affordable internet for their communities.

By Katie Scarlett Brandt

TheLa Jolla Reservation Intermediate Tower. Photo courtesy of TDVNet.

Chances are, you’re reading this right now over the internet. And chances are, when you clicked this link, you didn’t think about what made the link work or how fast the page loaded.

Unless, of course, your internet wasn’t working. It’s the same with electricity, heat, and water. If everything is running well, you go about your day. If not, your energy shifts to finding a way to access these necessities.

This spring, many tribal college students found themselves spending a great deal of energy on the problem of internet access. Like nearly all colleges and universities nationwide, tribal colleges closed campuses and moved learning online in response to Covid-19. But tribal college administrators also knew that the shift to remote learning would be particularly difficult for their students. In communities where many families do not have computers or home internet, students worked from cars parked within reach of a wi-fi signal, wrote papers on smartphones and, when all else failed, received and sent assignments by regular mail.

These are stories of determination and resourcefulness. But they also reveal just how essential the internet has become, and how its absence is much more than an inconvenience. “It’s really an underpinning of everything in our society these days,” said Traci Morris, director of the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University, and one of the first to study broadband connectivity on tribal lands.

The problem of internet access existed before Covid-19, but the pandemic turned the issue of connectivity into one of the most urgent policy issues in Native American communities nationwide. Tribal leaders and policy makers alike argue that, just as the nation worked in the past to bring electricity to rural America or assure access to clean water, so, too, must the nation recognize that all must have access to the internet. And in the absence of effective federal policy, some tribes are taking matters into their own hands.

• • •

The term “digital divide” was first coined in the mid 1990s, and since the early 2000s the nation has worked to expand internet access to underserved regions and groups.  Christopher Ali, an associate professor of Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia, estimated that the federal government spent about $100 billion over the past twenty years to get the country connected to broadband internet, with much of this money going directly to the nation’s largest internet service providers through competitive grants administered by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

But despite these efforts, Native communities remain among the most overlooked regions in the nation. In fact, only 46.4% of rural tribal areas have access to high-speed internet, compared to 73.3% of other rural areas in the U.S., according to a May 2019 report from the FCC. The reasons for the continued disparity are complex, but include extreme geographic isolation, low population densities, and high rates of poverty.

In these settings, companies have little economic incentive to install high speed internet, and sometime fail to provide service, even when funded to do so. Additionally, residents often cannot afford internet when it is available—especially at the high rates charged in many rural regions.

Scott Morgan, director of institutional research and programs at Sisseton Wahpeton College in South Dakota, has firsthand experience dealing with the problem of cost.

For his institution, the digital divide began to widen in the early 2000s, when the federal government distributed money to the states to build their own broadband networks. Each state could then choose how to build the networks–either publicly or privately.

South Dakota turned most of their broadband funding over to a private corporation, SDN Communications, which built out the infrastructure, but neglected to negotiate rates based on whether a company was private, non-profit, or public. As a result, Morgan said, “Our college paid the same rates as if we were 3M.” At its peak, internet access cost the college nearly $3,000 per month, an enormous expense for a small tribal college.

Rates subsequently dropped; the school now pays about $300 per month for its DSL connection. However, rates remain high for area residents, who pay about $90 per month for home internet, Morgan estimated, which is a prohibitive amount for students who either don’t have credit history to qualify, can’t afford the monthly rate, or who can’t afford upfront security deposits.

In the past, colleges provided students and community members with free access to the internet from their computer centers. But when campuses closed in March, access ended, leaving many students without a convenient way to get online and complete coursework, Morgan said. “We’re [planning] to open up [for in-person classes] in the fall in part because of that reason. It’s also just a better fit for our students by and large than online.”

Limited access to the internet affects far more than education, Morgan added. “How can you have a modern economy on reservations where you don’t have internet access? What about start-ups or work-from-home type jobs? Telemedicine? You can’t do any of those the way they’ve been talked about unless you have good internet access,” he said. “I’ve got ten miles to get to a gas station, twenty miles to a grocery store. The nearest Walmart is 45 miles away, and I’m not by any means remote compared to a lot of our people in some of these very small towns. We need to open up economic opportunities for students.”

However, Morgan said, so much of rural America suffers from dis-connectivity that “it’s a much bigger group of people that could benefit. My focus is our tribal students, and maybe that becomes a model for how you could solve it at-large.”

For example, Morgan suggested, if internet service providers offered students discounted rates to bring their monthly bills to $35-$40, Sisseton Wahpeton College could classify the rate as a cost of attendance, which the Federal Pell Grants could cover. The school could then allot money from the Covid-19 CARES Act to purchase modems for students who needed them.

In the long-term view, companies stand to profit. “If you graduate students out of our tribal college and they get jobs, they’re going to be your next customers,” Morgan said.

• • •

Twelve hundred miles south of Sisseton Wahpeton College, the problem at Navajo Technical University, the nation’s largest tribal college, is less around cost and more an issue of connectivity. The Navajo Nation is one of the most remote reservations in the country, where many homes still lack running water and electricity. There, only a quarter of reservation homes have access to broadband.

According to NTU President Elmer Guy, Covid-19 was “an awakening for the Navajo Nation. We’re very rural. We don’t have the infrastructure in place. We’re really feeling it now.” To finish out the spring semester, he noted, some faculty hand delivered lessons to students without internet access. He called it “our own Pony Express.”

Other ad hoc solutions were found. Early in the pandemic, NTU worked with telecommunication companies and the FCC to set up emergency hot spots on campus and at chapter houses so students could access internet from their cars. However, that only works in cooler months. “It’s 117 in the desert today, so imagine sitting out in their car to do homework for hours,” said Morris, when interviewed in July. “It’s a short-term fix that needs a long-term solution.”

But long-term fixes take time. “We’re a sovereign nation,” Guy said, noting that countless issues—both jurisdictional and cultural—complicate the work of building towers or digging ditches. “There’s just interesting challenges, and we’re trying our best to move through them.”

According to Tom Davis, assistant to the NTU president who has worked for many years to expand internet access on the reservation, the community was understandably focusing on more urgent issues this spring. “So many people have died, and so many have had serious life-altering health problems from this. We’ve lost several instructors and tribal college employees,” he said. “With the students, they’re trying to deal with the deaths and the health issues within the family. That’s distracting enough, dealing with those sorts of real life issues.”

• • •

On Alaska’s remote North Slope, internet connectivity issues are even more prominent. Iḷisaġvik College pays $10,000 a month for an internet speed of 10 megabits per second. The college, located in Utqiagvik, Alaska–a town of about 4,200 people located within the Arctic Circle–wins for highest cost and slowest speed internet among the 35 tribal colleges and universities.

“Cost is huge,” said Iḷisaġvik College President Pearl Kiyawn Brower, noting that the college’s total budget is approximately $20 million.

For comparison, consider that the typical internet-connected house in the U.S. uses about 100 megabits per month, meaning that households charged at Iḷisaġvik College’s rate would spend $100,000 a month on internet alone. Meanwhile, the University of Oregon pays 85 cents per megabit, said Dale Smith, technical lead at the American Indian Higher Education Consortium’s Cyber Infrastructure Initiative, who works at the University of Oregon.

Iḷisaġvik College, located on the North Slope of Alaska, where internet is both expensive and slow. Photo courtesy of Iḷisaġvik College.

In 2017, Smith partnered with American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), which received funding from the National Science Foundation to look at tribal colleges’ technology ecosystems. They were analyzing each school’s ability to support technology and research, related to education.

“We’re now at [an average of] 411 megabits per second,” Smith said, referring to tribal colleges’ average connection speed. “We’re catching up to associates-granting institutions.” However, many tribal colleges offer bachelors and masters degree programs, and are nowhere near the 3.487 gigabits per second that was the norm for non-tribal universities even in 2015.

The research, which revealed alarmingly low internet connectivity speeds and high prices, helped AIHEC secure CARES Act funding when the pandemic hit. The legislation earmarked $20 million to help some of the tribal colleges face the fundamental challenges in their broadband infrastructure.

“There’s a real commitment to make sure this really happens and does good things for TCUs,” said Al Kuslikis, senior associate for strategic initiatives with AIHEC.

Recently, AIHEC has also been hosting weekly calls with tribal college IT staff. The calls create a network of people to reach out to for ideas and support as the schools navigate the complexities of remote learning and broadband infrastructure.

In the communities surrounding Iḷisaġvik College, individual households pay high rates, too: $300 capped at a speed of 6 megabits per second. Yet, with students now home learning remotely, that’s not necessarily the best option. “I’ve seen two individuals during Covid post on Facebook that their bill went to $3,000 to $5,000 because the kids are home and on the internet,” said the Iḷisaġvik College’s Vice President Justina Wilhelm.

Iḷisaġvik College student working on a paper. In rural communities, many students rely on tribal college computer labs for reliable and affordable internet access. Photo courtesy of Iḷisaġvik College.

Iḷisaġvik College and the eight surrounding communities connect to the internet via undersea fiber, which the private company Quintillion installed during an attempt to lay fiber from Japan to London via the Arctic. On the way, they connected communities across Alaska’s remote North Slope.

“The public is a big investor in this, but what value is the public getting?” Smith said.

Previously, the area connected to internet via satellite. Quintillion undercuts the satellite rates by only $300 a month, according to Smith.

The project seemed hopeful, and the government hadn’t announced any plans for connectivity. Still, only a few years in, the high price tag remains. “It isn’t all that great of internet access. When we get out to our smaller rural villages, it kind of deteriorates from there,” Brower said, adding that creating access is a gamble. “Privatization moves a little faster, but when the government is involved you have less cost.”

• • •

Tom Davis at NTU noted that, in America, “There’s this tendency to think that the private sector is the best way to do everything in the universe.” But the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho is showing that alternatives exist. There, the tribe started building out its own broadband network in the 1990s, putting the priority on equity and affordability.

“If you think about electricity and clean water as utilities — every house has to have it. That’s exactly what we’re talking about here for internet connectivity. We built out on the premise that this is a utility that every home needs,” said Danae Wilson, Department of Technology services manager for the Nez Perce tribe. “When you think about it like that, you’re not thinking about the ROI. You think about it as ‘I have 300 houses to connect to this utility, and how much will that cost?’”

Wilson described her job as “building broadband in Indian Country.” She sits on a dozen telecommunications committees and task forces, among them the FCC’s Native Nations Communication Task Force and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee, the Idaho Broadband Taskforce, and the National Congress of American Indians.

“What I’ve seen is that a lot of tribes don’t have someone in a position like mine who understands the technology and what can be done,” Wilson said. “Typically, we [as tribes] deal only with ourselves. Private-public partnerships are new. Off-reservation can be a hostile environment, and many tribes don’t collaborate for that reason. But when you do, it opens up more opportunities, more funding.”

Wilson considers it her personal mandate to find that funding. “I can’t take the limited resources we have to fund any particular segment. Truly going after grant funds has been a mainstay,” she said.

The Nez Perce tribe has been working to connect all buildings and houses on the reservation using fixed wireless broadband with fiber backhaul. The main town has funding under an Idaho Broadband grant to get fiber to homes. They started by connecting the tribal offices, and laying fiber the width of a strand of hair in the ground any time a water or sewer project involved digging up land.

“The largest part of installing fiber is digging the ground. That labor piece is the biggest cost. Conduit itself is extremely affordable,” Wilson said. “Some years we’d do three miles, some years nine to twelve.”

She recalls a fiber installation project in the early years, when they’d installed it alongside a water project. Not wanting to hold the water project up, they rushed to get permissions and lay the fiber in the ground. “Afterwards, when the line was buried, we had to go out with shovels to find it. [Now], we throw coins in, bolts, screws — something so we could do a line locate on it after the fact,” Wilson said.

Not only is the tribe building out the infrastructure, they’re also the internet service provider. That enabled the tribe to negotiate good rates for the community and assist tribal members who needed financial help to pay for service. “They didn’t have to go to the non-Native community to get that support,” Wilson said.

Another bonus: “We’re not going to see a degradation in education simply because of lack of connectivity,” she said. “No other tribes are doing this. I preach it everywhere I go.”

If not for Covid-19 and the widespread cancellation of large events, Wilson would’ve spent the spring season going from conference to conference, educating the other 573 tribes on the importance of taking ownership of their broadband — and how to do it.

• • •

She’s not alone. Matthew Rantanen, director of technology for the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association, calls himself a “cyber warrior for tribal broadband.” He has spent nearly 20 years advocating for all Indigenous people to “get access to the tools of the century we live in. They can choose how to use it, but they shouldn’t be excluded from the opportunity,” he said.

“Broadband being on the reservation allows us to be next door to any community in the world. We’re no longer 100 miles away from nearest grocery store. We can go to college in our house. We can get healthcare for minor issues, so we don’t have to use the only family car to drive hours to see a doctor. We can do the things that other people can do. We can be part of this society,” Rantanen said.

Rantanen also works for Arcadian Infracom, a private company that connects Google, Amazon, Apple, and other major data centers together.

“In doing that, we’re going through Navajo Nation and giving access to them. We’re using the big kids’ money to make sure the little kids are getting the benefit,” he said, adding, “Fiber needs to come to the reservations. When you bring fiber to a key anchor institution, then innovation, creativity, that self-governance, self-determination, that ability to take care of yourself can take over.”

Rantanen focuses on the “middle mile” — the segment of broadband networking that links the core network to local networks. “The middle mile is missing — 8,000 miles of it in the lower 48 — and it’s the federal government’s job to build it out. That was the promise. We said we’d live here [on reservations], if you take care of it.”

But the federal government hasn’t done that. So a mishmash of private industry, state, and tribal agencies have. If not for Covid-19’s closures, Rantanen, like Wilson, would’ve spent this spring and summer at conferences educating tribes and alerting them to the process around applying for rights to “spectrum” — the airwaves over which wireless signals travel, enabling internet connectivity.

“It’s like a utility, a non-visible natural resource, and we have the opportunity to own it,” Morris said.

The in-person education and conversations around spectrum are crucial. And many digital connections have succeeded because of human networking. “Technology is hard to explain, and costs are extremely high. When you have two negatives, it makes it extremely hard,” Wilson said.

She mentioned her tribal executive, who she said refers to technology as “the new horse. What did we do when the horse came to Native nations? How did we adapt it? How did we use it? How did we advance ourselves? The spectrum gives us that opportunity today. There’s a finite amount available, so we’re aggressively pursuing and using it to benefit our people.”

In February, the FCC began accepting applications for the Rural Tribal Priority Window from tribes that wanted to claim ownership of the 2.5Ghz broadband spectrum airwaves over their lands. A few weeks later, Covid-19 altered life in the U.S.

Tribal internet advocates have called for the FCC to extend the application window to give tribes, which had to furlough employees beyond essential functions, more time to apply. The window was supposed to close August 3, but the FCC issued a 30-day extension, which Rantanen said isn’t nearly enough time.

“Don’t pretend like we haven’t been in a pandemic, and don’t pretend like tribes haven’t been hit harder than anywhere else,” he said. “Why wasn’t [this] an opt-out process for tribes? The process is not simple if you’re not a telecom logger. It’s FCC’s wonky application site that’s not designed for humans, let alone tribal people who don’t access this stuff on a regular basis.”

Google employees, permitted to use up to 20 percent of their time on independent projects, have tried to help, too, Kuslikis said.

A number of Native Americans work for Google and created a network within the company called the Google American Indian Network, or GAIN. They helped tribes file the spectrum application, which included one form, Form 602, that was eighteen pages long but only required filling out “two little sections,” Smith said.

The FCC’s motivation in closing the window comes down to money, Rantanen said. Once the application window closes, whatever airwaves don’t go to the tribes get auctioned off to private bidders. “The last open auction for spectrum went to $42 billion. It’s important to understand that this is the money machine of the U.S. government. With spectrum, they print money,” Rantanen said.

• • •

In late July, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Representative Deb Haaland (D-New Mex.) introduced a bill, the DIGITAL Reservations Act, to affirm tribes’ ownership of the broadband spectrum over their lands. Spectrum ownership would foster tribal sovereignty, Warren and Haaland assert in the bill.

Tribal broadband advocates embraced the bill. ”Creating networks of our own is a huge opportunity,” Morris said. “It would be an equal playing field, a seat at the table.”

Covid-19 has highlighted just how important that seat at the table is, altering the way that people interact with each other and think about connectivity. “You used to just send your kid to school, but now that the home is the education, it has changed the game,” Wilson said.

Tribes also could benefit from the way that colleges expose students to the telecommunications field. “People don’t know they can go to school to become a wireless engineer. We’re a natural resource tribe — students are taught to go into forestry or fishery,” Wilson said. “It’s not that we don’t have the capabilities.”

The job opportunities exist. Wilson mentioned broadband-related jobs that the Nez Perce tribe has had open for two years, despite attempts to recruit hires.

Morris, too, said it’s hard to find people interested in telecommunications. “People don’t know what it is,” she said, adding that her doctorate in comparative cultural and literary studies isn’t remotely related to telecommunications.

“I got the bug. I dug in, learned it,” Morris said. “There’s an ability to make a difference. We’ve had the ability to be part of the development of a new utility, and we need a pipeline of folks doing this work.” A pipeline to go from high school and college into the workforce, and from policy to implementation.

In the long term, companies, tribes, and the federal government have a vested interest in creating real solutions for our shared future. In the short term, students deserve a desk to do their learning and homework — not on a dashboard, in a car, accessing the internet via from a parking lot.

Katie Scarlett Brandt, a freelance writer based in Chicago, is a regular contributor to Native Science Report.

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