Tribes in the Pacific Northwest seem poised to narrow the digital divide, thanks to a couple recent actions by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
The digital divide, a term that’s been with us for over 20 years, describes the discrepancy between those who have suitable internet access and those who don’t. Being on the wrong side of the divide can mean a family, neighborhood or Tribe is essentially stuck in the past. And we’re not just talking Netflix and Fortnite — consider the current coronavirus pandemic. If you can work from home, authorities say, you should, but it’s hard to telecommute over a dial-up connection.
The digital divide is a stark reality in Indian Country. A 2018 survey found that just 53% of residents on Tribal lands had access to high-speed Internet service. That’s not just a low percentage — it’s the bottom. Traci Morris of the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University summed it up for an NPR report: “We’re the least connected. We’re under-connected. We’re under-served.”
Residents of Benwah County in rural Idaho got news this week that the FCC will be spending over $500,000 to bring broadband access to their area, money that comes from the agency’s Connect America fund. Red-Spectrum Communications, an internet service provider owned and operated by the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, said it would use the money to bring service to 185 homes in the area, according to Law360.com. Benwah County contains over half of the Coeur d’Alene Reservation, although it is not clear how many of those 185 homes are on Tribal land.
On February 3, the FCC opened a window giving preference to federally-recognized Tribes to apply for mid-band spectrum licenses. The mid-band (or Sub 6) spectrum is a key component of 5G wireless technology, serving as a more stable signal to support the fast but distortion-prone millimeter wave spectrum.
Mid-band spectrum licenses were once reserved for educational institutions, but are unassigned across most of the western U.S. Obtaining a license for mid-band spectrum and operating a network could be a wise business venture for a Tribe, and it could also help Tribes narrow or entirely close the digital divide.
“Many of our communities are at a major disadvantage not having access to broadband, especially our children for their education,” Rodney Cawston, chairman of the Colville Tribes, told the Spokane Spokesman-Review. “We just really need to make or create those opportunities for our community, not only for education and health, but essential government services on the reservation.”