Virus widens gap between internet haves, have-nots

When the Hopi village of Bacavi had its first positive COVID-19 diagnosis in early April, the decision to close its doors to nonresidents was slowed by poor internet access.

Stay-at-home orders prohibited meetings in the Arizona community, so tribal leaders had to make decisions about closures via phone calls, said Bacavi resident Barbara Poley, Laguna and Hopi.

“Zoom would have really helped,” she said. “But the [village] governor could not receive my information because her internet service was not working.”

The communications hurdles on the rural Hopi reservation are all too common in Indian Country. The Federal Communications Commission estimates approximately a third of those living on tribal lands lack access to high-speed internet, though others say the figure is far higher.

Advocates say the problem is more urgent than ever with people lacking access to everything from public health information and telemedical services to educational and employment services during a pandemic.

“At no other time in history has robust and universal broadband been more important to the most vulnerable among us,” according to the Congressional Native American Caucus, led by U.S. Reps. Deb Halland, (D-NM) and Tom Cole (R-OK).

Monday, the caucus wrote to the Federal Communications Commission asking for a quick fix by authorizing use of frequencies that cover larger areas but carry less signal than others.

It asked the agency to authorize temporary use of available 2.5 GHz spectrum and other efficient, available and cost-effective spectrum on all tribal lands, both reservations and allotments. The commission has a program to authorize use of unassigned 2.5 GHz on rural reservation lands by individual application. Under that program, tribes cannot use 2.5 GHz frequencies under license to someone else even if it is unused.

In an email, commission spokesman Will Wiquist said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai “has seen the digital divide on Tribal lands and is committed to finding solutions to keep Americans on Tribal lands connected.”