Connecting Families to Broadband Remains Challenging
Op Ed By Loris Taylor, President & CEO, Native Public Media
During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic that gripped our nation, one mother went to extremes to get her two children, an elementary and high school student, to a hot spot during a cold winter day. With a young infant in toll, the mother drove thirty miles to the closest hot spot offered by Northern Arizona University on the Hopi Reservation. Working on a small cell phone, the students took turns completing their homework. It was a long day for this family. Nearly four hours had passed, and it was nightfall when the family returned home.
Similar struggles are experienced by families across Indian Country every day. According to a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) report, 35% of people living on tribal lands lack access to high-speed internet. This is more than double the national average, representing a significant barrier to the economic development, education, and healthcare of tribal citizens.
The FCC’s goal of achieving universal broadband access across the United States is often difficult in areas with low population density and challenging terrain. Many tribal communities are in remote areas with limited access to roads and other transportation options. Many tribal communities lack reliable power sources, which can make it difficult to maintain the broadband infrastructure over the long term. Ensuring reliable and resilient broadband networks is critical for tribal lands prone to natural disasters like wildfires, floods, and hurricanes. Tribal broadband infrastructure must be able to withstand these events and quickly recover in their aftermath.
Tribal communities have historically sought to secure broadband infrastructure. To address this issue, Congress allocated an unprecedented two billion dollars for broadband deployment in Native American communities. But the road to successful broadband deployment has not been easy for Tribes. In a recent Tribal Telecommunications Summit, Tribal citizens articulated that some of the challenges flow directly or indirectly from the allocation of Congressional appropriations through multiple federal agencies.
One pronounced hurdle to successful broadband deployment in tribal communities is the federal funding requirements of multi-agencies. The federal government established several funding programs aimed at expanding broadband deployment and access to underserved tribal communities. However, the granting process is highly competitive, and tribes are often disadvantaged due to the complex funding requirements and regulations, which can disqualify them from additional funding opportunities from a different federal agency. These requirements often demand that tribes have a well-established administrative and technical infrastructure, which can be difficult for many tribal governments to provide.
The competitive nature of the granting process also allows outside grantees to compete with tribes for funding and spectrum, leaving tribes with fewer opportunities to secure the funding or spectrum they need to deploy broadband infrastructure in their communities. Tribes must also navigate the complex regulatory environment surrounding broadband deployment. Many tribal lands are subject to complex jurisdictional arrangements involving multiple federal agencies and overlapping state and local authorities. This complexity can create significant delays and obstacles to broadband deployment.
Broadband mapping is another issue. The Federal Communications Commission launched the National Broadband Map to identify gaps in broadband coverage and improve broadband infrastructure in tribal areas and nationally. The initiative involves collecting data on broadband availability, speed, and quality in tribal lands. The FCC will use this data to create more accurate maps of broadband coverage, including detailed maps of tribal lands where broadband access is limited or nonexistent. Despite the positive intent of the FCC's National Broadband Map, it has faced several challenges in its implementation. Some Tribes have expressed concerns about exposing proprietary information in the data collection. Others state there is a lack of reliable data on broadband availability and quality in tribal areas, which is compounded by the complexity of navigating the FCC map portal.
Future-proofing their broadband infrastructure is a desire and challenge for Tribes. Sustaining broadband infrastructure requires ongoing investment, maintenance, and upgrades to ensure that the network remains reliable and can support the needs of the community it serves. The cost of building and maintaining broadband infrastructure can be significant, and ongoing funding is required to ensure the network remains operational. Some suggest it could come from government grants, private investment, user fees, and perhaps Universal Service Fund reforms. As technology evolves, broadband infrastructure must be upgraded and maintained to keep pace with changing demands. This includes replacing outdated equipment, expanding capacity, and making other improvements to ensure that the network can support new applications and services. Sustainability is also tethered to a skilled workforce who are essential to maintaining and upgrading broadband infrastructure. This includes network engineers, technicians, and other professionals who can keep the network running smoothly and ensure that it meets evolving needs.
Meaningful consultation between Tribes and government agencies, and collaboration with service providers, and community organizations is essential to sustaining broadband infrastructure across Indian Country. By working together, stakeholders can identify needs and opportunities, share resources and expertise, and coordinate efforts to build and maintain the network. The recent funding for broadband deployment in tribal communities is a huge step in the right direction. With the right resources and support, families won’t have to drive long distances on a cold winter day to gain access to the benefits of the modern digital infrastructure that has already transformed the world.