According to the DIGITAL Reservations Act, proposed in July 2020, “only 65 percent of Native Americans living on Tribal lands have access to … wireless services, leaving approximately 1.5 million people on reservations without” reliable internet. But there is some good news: On Oct. 23, 2020, a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decision granted 2.5-GHz broadcast licenses for high-speed wireless internet to rural tribal governments in New Mexico, Arizona, and other states. The FCC announced that 154 Native American communities have received licenses so far. Additional licenses could still be awarded, as FCC staffers continue to review and process all of the applications received before the deadline, which had been extended to Sept. 2.
Additionally, in early June, leaders of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe in central South Dakota began an ambitious plan to launch high-speed wireless internet in response to the necessity of remote learning during the pandemic. The tribe is paying for the effort using funds from the CARES Act and is receiving technical assistance from MuralNet, a nonprofit founded in 2017. As of September 2020, 25 families had access to the tribe’s network.
A Broadband Success Story
Although broadband access still presents a challenge for many Native Americans, ALA chronicles a case study of two consortia that have completed a successful effort in the Santa Fe, N.M., region to build fiber-optic networks. Together, these consortia represent six pueblos: Cochiti, Santo Domingo, San Felipe, Santa Ana, Jemez, and Zia. After speaking with several of the participants in the project, some key areas were identified as core to its completion.
The first and perhaps most formidable activity was to apply for and acquire the necessary financial backing from the FCC’s E-Rate program, which supplies funding and discounts for telecommunications and related services to eligible schools and libraries. Alana McGrattan, the tribal libraries program coordinator at the New Mexico State Library, says, “Since most communities didn’t have enough bandwidth, they began a cooperative relationship to remediate that problem. There was a common view among the participants that the tribes ‘owning’ their own fiber was parallel to other efforts for Indian self-determination.”
When asked about the biggest challenges for the project, McGrattan notes, “All of the libraries wanted better connectivity for their communities, but just filling out an E-Rate application and understanding even what to ask for was out of reach for individual communities. With the leadership of the pueblos and others with strong ties in the communities, a coalition was formed.”
Once funding was approved, the actual construction and placement of fiber-optic cables needed to begin. Here, too, laying the cables was more problematic than anticipated due to rural and rugged terrain, as well as complex rights of way and easements on tribal lands that can cause delays in construction.
Kimball Sekaquaptewa, chief technology director at Santa Fe Indian School and project manager for the broadband initiative, says, “The most difficult part of the project was aligning the E-Rate rules with a construction timeline. We were in the first wave of self-construction applications, and E-Rate itself was adjusting to changes. Staying on the right side of the E-Rate rules and meeting the construction project milestones was not always easy.”
To address not only E-Rate issues, but also other problems as they cropped up, it became apparent that this effort was too large for just one tribe to work through on its own. Sekaquaptewa says, “Constructing broadband infrastructure is too large for a library, school, or clinic who may be next door to each other and equally under-connected. By working together and contributing individual expertise, the consortium was able to progress and realize a much better outcome for all than trying to solve the problem alone.”
Joining the forces of six pueblos was just the beginning. Sekaquaptewa asserts, “The future is to connect the rest of the tribes in New Mexico, creating a pueblo education network, and then to leverage our connection to the Albuquerque GigaPoP, which is a higher education network operated by the University of New Mexico. This opens previously untapped opportunities for online education and taps into national networks such as Internet2.”
Leah Todd reports for High Country News, “The project will connect tribal libraries … at a fraction of the price internet service has cost until now. The Middle Rio Grande Pueblo Tribal Consortium, the group leading the project, is one of a growing number of tribally led broadband internet initiatives in the U.S., and one of few collaborative projects that allow rural tribes to aggregate demand and negotiate lower prices.”
Santo Domingo librarian Cynthia Aguilar summarizes what’s important to completing the broadband effort: “Broadband can be a part of everyone’s life in the neighborhood by getting familiar with the … E-rate process. Call for professional expertise and ask for assistance. It’s free.” Aguilar suggests doing the following:
- Find out what telecommunication services are currently in your area.
- Identify what is working and what needs to be improved.
- Get the right people involved (e.g., governors of your pueblo, IT personnel, stakeholders, and youth).
- Develop a community vision that is equal-opportunity-driven.
- Establish community needs. (All connectivity needs must be considered.)
- Find solutions by exploring the possibilities within your area.
- Put the plan together. (Be as one!)
- Put the plan in action. (Be as one!)
Collaboration, community, and a compelling need were key components of bringing broadband to tribal lands. This stellar accomplishment can serve as an exemplary precedent for other disadvantaged areas. As Jimmy Cliff sang in 1970, “You can get it if you really want, but you must try, try and try, try and try”—and these consortia did just that, successfully completing an extremely involving and challenging job.