Hoping for a Silver Lining: Tribes Take on the Digital Divide in the Covid-19 Era

Rodney Cawston, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation, says that if a silver lining can come from the pandemic, it’s that his Tribe could one day be fully connected. “We need to get broadband across our reservation, and we are just going to try to do that in any way that we can,” he says. “We will keep beating our drum.” (Photo: Softarex Technologies)

When the realities of the pandemic sunk in by mid-March, most schools, from K-12 to college, realized that their communities needed to have solid Internet connections in place, and they hoped their students and employees had access to quality mobile and computing devices that could help everyone do most of their work from home.

For Tribes, especially the most rural ones with complex landscapes that make infrastructure development difficult, the long-known and much-discussed digital divide became of paramount concern.

“How were we going to help our students and government and businesses stay connected?” was a top question on the mind of Rodney Cawston, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation. “We had so many immediate concerns as a result of the pandemic; our lack of broadband access quickly became an issue because we knew we wanted to be safe, practice social distancing, and do right by our students, employees, and the whole community.” 

Cawston’s large Tribe located in north central Washington state covers 1.4 million acres across two counties with large unemployment rates; the geography of the Tribe’s landbase, which contains two mountain ranges, makes it very challenging to lay wires, build power structures and other technological infrastructure necessary to support the population. 

“Our kids really don’t have many of the same opportunities that I’d say most other children across the country have,” Cawston says, lamenting that the Tribe has not been able to do more to help fix that problem. “Learning about the world and exploring different interest areas, like in science and technology and math, is just a big challenge for our kids.”

The Tribal leader notes that many of his Tribe’s families lack access to basic Internet or computers. During a spring webinar with superintendents from nearby schools, many expressed to Colville leaders that they were not able to contact families or students just to check in, let alone get them on a pathway to mobile, distance learning. Stories of parents driving around the reservation with their cell phones trying to access mobile hotspots so students could do assignments became common. Most schools eventually began using hard copy materials that families could pick up for their students to physically complete.

Before Covid-19, the Colville Indian Reservation was already using its own monies to lay much-needed broadband cables. Tribal leaders hope that the pandemic and the increased need for fast mobile Internet that comes along with it will end up helping finish the job. (Courtesy Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation)

Tribal colleges were experiencing similar problems. Cynthia Lindquist, president of the Cankdeska Cikana Community College (CCCC) in North Dakota, recalls witnessing groups of students this spring trying to complete their college-level homework by using their prepaid wireless Tracfones.

Lindquist knew that this would just not work, and so the hunt was on to get students appropriate equipment and to enhance Internet connectivity and infrastructure for both her institution and the Spirit Lake Tribe at large. 

The Tribal college first turned to its grant money from the Northwest Area Foundation, which told leaders that they could use their program funding for anything specific to the issue of connectivity, but more so for equipment, including laptops. So the college was able to quickly get the students Chromebooks and iPads, but many, due to a lack of Internet at their homes, were forced to sit in the college’s main parking lot in order to secure a reliable connection. 

“The issue of Internet connectivity/access at home is our biggest challenge, and I’ve had both students and faculty members ask me if CCCC could pay for that connection and coverage,” Lindquist says. “Unfortunately, no we cannot.”

It’s an all-too-common problem for many Tribal citizens. According to an American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University study released last year, two-thirds of people living on rural Tribal lands lack high-speed Internet, while 18 percent of people living on reservations have no home Internet access at all. One-third of all Americans who live in rural areas do not have fixed-line broadband access; that’s 17 million people.

Like many rural Tribes, Colville and Spirit Lake have long noted their digital divide issues to federal and state officials. Some assistance has come along the way, but there are still vast rural pockets throughout the nation of Tribes, Tribal colleges and Indian-serving schools that have not received the necessary support to increase connectivity both before and after the pandemic.

Colville Tribal member Rex Burris, IT, stands in front of the computer lab at the Nespelem Tech Center, which opened Aug. 5, 2016. (Courtesy Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation)

For Colville, the Tribe has found its own self-sufficiency on the issue to be most useful in getting the job done. Before the coronavirus, the Tribe had embarked on a multi-year effort using its own monies to lay broadband cables to its various communities. The project was far from complete when Covid-19 entered the picture, and leasing questions involving Internet companies and issues surrounding how to get technology in the hands of Tribal families once the infrastructure was in place are still lingering problems.

For Spirit Lake, the voice of Lindquist, who is widely known as a strong advocate for Indian education, and the CCCC’s ability to make the case for necessities has been critical. The Tribe, sensing at the outset of the pandemic an opportunity for prolonged development on Internet-related issues, has designated the Tribal college as its entity to apply to participate in an ongoing Federal Communications Commission (FCC) program called the Rural Tribal Priority Window that allows Tribes to obtain free 2.5GHz spectrum licenses that could be quite useful in building fast wireless networks on difficult terrain. The opportunity, which could also be a revenue generator by giving Tribes an asset that many telecom companies want, will close in early August. Any unused portions of the available frequency will likely be sold to large telecom companies for possibly millions of dollars. 

“I believe this ‘window’ will start the bigger picture process for Tribal control and the development of reservation-wide connectivity,” Lindquist says. “My ideal is that every reservation home, which would include non-Natives, has free Internet access.”

The Tribal college, along with the 37 others that are part of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), has been one of the leading advocacy forces in Washington, D.C., along with the National Indian Education Association, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and various Indigenous tech experts nationwide, in trying to get federal lawmakers to pay more attention to broadband issues and the new realities under Covid-19.

“We’ve been pointing to the need for increased Tribal broadband for some time,” says Patrese Atine, director of congressional and federal relations at AIHEC. She notes that the consortium has been involved for several years in a cyber infrastructure study via funding from the National Science Foundation. Tribal colleges, she says, have been found to often pay the highest prices for the lowest speed Internet, and Tribal students tend to have access to far older computing equipment on average than most other students.

Cynthia Lindquist, president of the Cankdeska Cikana Community College (CCCC) in North Dakota (Courtesy CCCC)

Once Covid-19 struck, it became clear to many Tribal leaders that federal assistance could and should be available beyond the usual sources in this area, which had largely been the Departments of Interior, Education and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Federal aid, including the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law at the end of March, quickly became a resource that Tribal leaders like Cawston hoped would provide renewed broadband assistance to help his Tribe complete its projects. With $8 billion set aside for Tribes, it seemed obvious that a slice should go to the digital divide aspect facing Tribes, especially since social distancing and mobile learning, telehealth and e-commerce have been a big part of the conversation surrounding the coronavirus.

While CARES has helped to some extent, Atine says, it’s been no cure-all in this area by any means. 

The Colville Tribes have found that the deadline placed on spending the money received under the law — the end of 2020 — would not allow the Tribe to make meaningful progress on its broadband infrastructure development. Cawston says he doesn’t want to be spending money just to be spending money; he wants to do the job right, so the Tribe has strong connectivity long into the future.

And Lindquist says that funding under CARES to date has not been able to fully alleviate the access and connectivity issues her students and Tribal families face in her area. Her institution has additionally worked with the North Dakota Telephone Company and the Spirit Lake Tribe to provide mobile hotspots throughout the reservation, including setting one up in the college’s main parking lot.  

Lindquist adds that the Tribal colleges are using their Tribal College Act funding and some USDA funding toward improving and enhancing connectivity as well. “Right now, this does include using some of the CARES Act funding toward this goal,” she says, estimating it will cost $65,000 to upgrade her college’s computing servers.

Sign for Cankdeska Cikana Community College (CCCC) in North Dakota (Courtesy CCCC)

The Trump administration has touted its support specifically for rural broadband infrastructure projects through the USDA, FCC and Interior and Education Departments, but there seems to be a disconnect in understanding that CARES Act money is not getting to many Tribes that desperately need it for long-term Internet development and that timeline issues are causing major problems for Tribal leaders who want to use the money they are receiving to form lasting broadband solutions before having to return it if they can’t spend it in time to meet the arbitrary year-end deadline set by the Treasury Department.

Legislators in Washington are paying attention to the concerns of Tribes. Sen Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and a group of bipartisan lawmakers recently sent a letter to the FCC asking the agency to give Tribes more time to take advantage of the agency’s Rural Tribal Priority Window that could vastly increase Tribal mobile coverage and broadband services and create reservation-based revenue. 

The FCC responded that it would not extend the deadline, leaving Tribes struggling again to meet an arbitrary date of August 3 to make sure they are able to participate before the program extends to large corporations with deep pockets. Given the number of critical health and economic issues facing Tribal governments due to the coronavirus, Tribal advocates have asked for an extension of the agency’s window to at least November. NCAI has also requested that the FCC broaden its definition of rural so that more Tribes with access and connectivity issues could be eligible.

“The senator has been very frustrated with the administration’s handling and communications with Tribal communities when it comes to broadband,” Aaron Morales, press secretary for Heinrich, told Native Business soon after receiving word that the FCC would not be flexible in its timeline for Tribes.

Heinrich, along with Native American U.S. Representatives Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) and Tom Cole (R-Okla.), in May introduced a bill that would increase emergency access to broadband for Tribes. It is called the COVID-19 DISASTER in Indian Country Act, and it has been referred to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs (SCIA) for further action. It has received widespread support from Tribes and Tribal organizations.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), vice-chair of SCIA, has also been closely monitoring the administration’s handling of Tribal broadband issues. In June, he and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) sent a letter to the Interior and Education Departments expressing concern that CARES Act funding that could help with mobile distance learning for Indian students had been slow and problematic. 

U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.), vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs (Flickr/CC)

Administration officials in both agencies have not responded to requests for comment from Native Business regarding the senators’ concerns, and the legislators still await responses.  

Udall told Native Business in a statement that he continues to press for action.  

“The Bureau of Indian Education and the Department of Education didn’t get COVID-19 federal resources out the door to Native schools before the end of the school year, and they don’t appear to know which BIE schools are even able to offer distance learning,” Udall says.  

“Native students cannot be left stranded on the wrong side of the digital divide during the COVID-19 crisis,” the senator adds. “The federal government has both trust and treaty responsibilities to work with our Tribes to support Native students. These resource delays and lack of accountability are unacceptable.”

Despite the shortcomings thus far, Lindquist still looks forward to the fall semester, which begins August 25 and will be a hybrid of mostly online classes with a few in-person ones. And she is generally happy that the federal government via CARES has provided the funding necessary to keep her college’s doors open and to ensure the retention of students. 

As for Internet connectivity, “yes,” she says, “good things are happening, but for Tribal people and education we need the socialization of classroom experience that facilitates discourse, learning, and understanding.”

Cawston says that if a silver lining can come from the pandemic, it’s that his Tribe could one day be fully connected. “We need to get broadband across our reservation, and we are just going to try to do that in any way that we can,” he says. “We will keep beating our drum.”

Tribal Digital Village Network (TDVnet) was created by the Southern California Tribal Chairman’s Association (SCTCA) in 2001 to bring Internet services to key community buildings and resource programs on reservations. (Courtesy TDV)

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