3 Fundamental Fixes Needed for Tribes to Bridge the Digital Divide

While South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, the high-profile event pivoted to host forums virtually. A panel discussion on broadband in Indian Country made the transition to an online environment, and Native stakeholders presented sound ideas for making spectrum accessible on Tribal lands. (Photo Courtesy Tribal Digital Village Network for Native Business)

An illuminating discussion, originally slated for South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, took place virtually on April 14. The online forum, called “How Internet Access Can Improve Native Cultures,” which is archived on YouTube, touched on Native languages, cultural appropriation, Native enterprise and Tribal self-sufficiency.

Underlying every issue, of course, is access to broadband itself. At one point, moderator Mark Buell asked the three panelists to address this key issue: What is the number-one thing that has to happen to get Native communities online so that they may use the power of the Internet for their own purposes?

Rantanen: Bridge the Middle Mile

“During the Obama administration we discovered 8,000 missing miles,” said Matthew Rantanen (Cree), Director of Technology for the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association (SCTCA) and Director of the Tribal Digital Village (TDVNet). TDV’s long-term vision is to close the digital divide by bringing Tribal communities the infrastructure they need to flourish within a rapidly digitizing world.

“It’s somewhere around $1.25 billion to build that out at capacity, depending on if the fiber that is adjacent to the reservation is actually accessible, or not. You can build a wonderful network, but can you connect it to the rest of the world? Because as we know, the internet is a network of networks.”

Ratanen described the frustration that can result from being oh-so close to broadband connectivity: “You have this wonderful Tribal network and you want to do the things that everybody else does — have access to the resources, the jobs, the healthcare and everything else, and you can’t get there. Or you’re trapped in a situation where the pipeline that comes to you is so marked up by hops through the middle of America that you’re paying exorbitant amounts that can’t scale. So your community is left behind even though you have the wherewithal, maybe even the technology and the expertise, to build out what you can do locally, but you still can’t get [connected to the pipeline].”

READ MORE: Tribal Digital Village Network Connects to International Internet Exchange 

The Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association created Tribal Digital Village (TDV) in 2001 with a three-year grant from Hewlett Packard. Using a high-performance wireless backbone, the TDV project delivers wireless broadband to community centers, fire stations, sheriff substations, Tribal administration buildings, and Tribal libraries in-and-around at least eighteen Tribal reservations. (Photo Courtesy Tribal Digital Village Network for Native Business)

Redfern: Fix Broken Governmental Systems

“The system is broken in Canada,” said Madeleine Redfern, President of Nuvujaq, an organization seeking to ensure Inuit and northern participation in the digital economy. “It’s not even a question of throwing money at it when the system is broken. A lot of the federal governments have different departments and agencies that have different responsibilities, they’re not as well connected to each other as they could and should be. The big telecommunications companies don’t want to provide service in rural and remote areas because it’s not profitable. It’s very challenging for us to access funds when the criteria and the policies of the funds don’t even allow you to access them, to develop community networks.”

“Ultimately what I’d really like is a proper analysis before we throw billions of dollars more,” she continued, “to try to achieve some laudable goals that the federal government has stated about connecting Canadians by 2030. We know that we need to do some major fixes and we actually have to look at developing a strategy … How do you achieve some of these stated goals that the federal government is prepared to make major investments in. [With] the way it works right now, we’re nowhere near going to achieve those end goals.”

Blackwater: Respect Treaty Rights to Spectrum

“Spectrum waves are not created by a telecom, they’re a natural resource,” said Darrah Blackwater, a law student at the University of Arizona. “They’ve been on the land since time immemorial. It’s the same as sunlight. In my view, it’s something that’s encompassed in the treaty. ‘For use and occupation’ in a treaty means that you get to use the spectrum. [But] the spectrum rights are not currently with the Tribes. They have been taken by the Federal Communications Commission, and they’re sold to big telecoms and other entities. The Federal Communications Commission for the US Treasury makes billions and billions of dollars — I think in 2015 they made upwards of $40 billion [from selling rights to the spectrum to telecoms].”

“56.2 million acres of land in America is Tribal land,” Blackwater observed. “That means that some of these spectrum licenses, because they are geographical, are either being sold or given away over and on Tribal lands. … That spectrum can’t be used by the Tribes that live on that land because it’s being either sold or given away to entities that are not Tribal. So, in my view, what really needs to happen is that the FCC needs to recognize the rights of Tribes over the spectrum on their land.”

Blackwater outlined two solutions that could result from Tribal rights to the spectrum on or above their land. One is that Tribes “have a bargaining chip that would allow them to entice internet service providers onto their land at a much, much lower cost because that service provider is not going to have to pay millions and millions of dollars [to the FCC] for that spectrum license. If the Tribe says ‘Hey, I have the spectrum license already, we just need to build some infrastructure and then you will be able to profit by providing service to our people.’ [That’s] not happening right now because the cost is too much for the service provider [who must] pay millions of dollars for the spectrum rights.” 

Another solution is already beginning to happen: “Tribes can utilize the spectrum to set up their own community broadband network, which is what we’re seeing happen right now around Navajo — NTUA [Navajo Tribal Utility Authority] and other entities have just started throwing up their own networks for students to be able to drive up into a parking lot and utilize their internet connection, and just blasting it out farther than they normally would so that people can sit in their cars and use the internet. And that all uses spectrum. If you have spectrum, you can do that.”

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