An opportunity to close Indian Country’s digital divide is expiring

A government program aimed at reversing the longstanding connectivity issues on tribal lands is complicated by the pandemic.

 

Under the best circumstances, Linnea Jackson’s 85-year-old grandmother would struggle to navigate a virtual doctor’s appointment, but a poor internet connection made it nearly impossible. With the COVID-19 pandemic limiting visits to medical offices, Jackson, the general manager of the Hoopa Valley Public Utilities District, ended up using her cellphone as a hotspot — a Band-Aid for her community’s longstanding connectivity problems.

“This pandemic has really shown the need for tribes, whether they’re rural or near local cities, to have access to broadband,” Jackson said. Hoopa Valley, a rural tribal community of about 3,500 in Northern California, is “vastly underserved” in terms of internet services, a decades-old problem exacerbated by the pandemic. Telecommuting, online education and access to unemployment websites all require adequate internet service, something Jackson said more than 80% of Hoopa Valley homes currently need.

A new program through the FCC offers free 2.5GHz spectrum licenses, but in the middle of a pandemic, Hoopa Valley and other communities don’t have the time and resources to dedicate to the application process.
Jolene Yazzie/High Country News

In 2018, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimated that 35% of Americans living on tribal lands lack broadband service — more than four times the country’s average. To help close the gap, the FCC opened a Rural Tribal Priority Window for tribes to apply for free 2.5GHz spectrum licenses in February. Matthew Rantanen, director of technology for the Southern California Tribal Chairmen's Association and a longtime digital sovereignty activist, said the window is an unprecedented opportunity for tribes to claim this valuable asset before it becomes publicly available. Once the window closes in August, the remaining licenses will be sold at auction, and most tribes will be unable to compete with the large telecom companies bidding for them. Experts hesitate to make predictions, but spectrum licenses are likely to go for thousands, if not millions of dollars. 

The 2.5GHz spectrum frequency travels long distances and can penetrate trees and other structures, making it an ideal building block for wireless networks. Tribes could lease the spectrum out to companies like Sprint, which plans to use the licenses to support its growing 5GHz networks, and receive both broadband services and revenue in return. They could also create jobs for tribal citizens by building the networks themselves. But even as COVID-19 reveals the urgent need for increased digital and economic resources, it is also making it harder for tribes to take advantage of the opportunity.

At the moment, getting a license seems less urgent than fighting a pandemic that has already strained tribes’ limited resources. Fewer than 50 tribes have applied. Rantanen said that the pandemic has also dramatically reduced his ability to spread awareness. In a statement to High Country News, the FCC said it continues to provide outreach and support to tribes but did not specify how the pandemic has impacted those efforts.

In Hoopa Valley, Jackson heard about the opportunity through a friend, but has seen little publicity about it. Even for tribes aware of it, however, the pandemic is impeding their ability to complete the application. Tribal governments accustomed to operating in person now must coordinate virtually or over the phone. “It’s been a hindrance to have to maneuver the council government process via conference call,” said Jackson.

With tribal communities hit hard by COVID-19, many governments are too occupied to apply. “The same people that would be responsible for ensuring that a network could be deployed are now worried about emergency communications and getting essential services out to individuals,” said Danae Wilson, manager of the Nez Perce Tribe Department of Technology Services and co-chair of the Native Nations Communications Task Force at the FCC. 

Rantanen stresses that broadband could also help tribal officials confront similar challenges in the future: “If you have access to broadband, you have access to resources, you have access to stay home and do all these things.” Because of the unprecedented challenges, Rantanen, Wilson and other activists are pushing the FCC for an extension until at least November. In its statement, the FCC did not mention any plans for an extension.

As word about the window slowly spreads, some temporary solutions have emerged. In April, the FCC granted the Navajo Nation a Special Temporary Authorization (STA) to broadband spectrum to help it confront the digital challenges of COVID-19. Once the STA was granted, MuralNet, a nonprofit that works with tribal communities, began buying supplies to set up temporary networks.

“If tribes don’t get control of their own spectrum, they’re only going to see the digital divide get wider and wider and wider.”

Darrah Blackwater, a Navajo volunteer with MuralNet, helped set up two networks on the Navajo Nation, which suffers from one of the country’s highest infection rates, as well as one of its lowest broadband connectivity rates. Earlier this month, the Congressional Native American Caucus proposed a bill that would give the temporary authorization to all tribes, along with other relief measures. Blackwater supports the bill, but said tribes need a permanent solution.

Blackwater also believes that the FCC window, which she sees as a rare chance to reverse the trend of outsiders claiming Native resources, must be extended. In the face of a pandemic, she is doing whatever she can to help tribes seize this opportunity. “If tribes don’t get control of their own spectrum, they’re only going to see the digital divide get wider and wider and wider.”

Joseph  Lee is an Aquinnah Wampanoag writer who lives in New York City. 

Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • ANCESTRAL LANDS ADMINISTRATIVE MANAGER
    Starting Salary: Grade C, $19.00 to 24.00 per/hour Location: Albuquerque or Gallup, NM Status: Full-Time, Non-Exempt Benefit Eligible: Full Benefits Eligible per Personnel Policies Program...
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...