Bridging the digital divide in Indian Country

A new report focuses on internet infrastructure on tribal lands and how tribes can use it to strengthen their sovereignty.

In the many Indigenous communities where broadband connectivity is scarce, transitioning to virtually held tribal council meetings and medical appointments during the pandemic has been challenging. A report released this week is offering Indigenous communities some insight into how they might be able to address the pressing need for new internet infrastructure while also strengthening their tribal sovereignty.

A lack of internet connectivity has long contributed to systemic inequalities in Indian Country. By the end of 2018, approximately half of the tribal lands in the Lower 48 states had high-speed Internet access, according to the Federal Communications Commission. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a national research and advocacy organization, has just issued a report on Indigenous internet infrastructure that has two key features: a case study of four Indigenous nations as they constructed their own internet service providers, and a comprehensive list and map of all the tribally owned broadband projects in Indian Country.


Indian Country has largely been ignored when it comes to internet infrastructure, due in part to the U.S. government’s historic failure to ensure infrastructure development for Indigenous nations. But the COVID-19 pandemic has brought this inequality to the forefront. 

Tribes do have an opportunity when it comes to solutions, said H. Rose Trostle (Cherokee Nation), author of the report and project manager for the Community Broadband Network at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. The goal is not to just address the digital divide through the report, they said, but to encourage development and enact tribal sovereignty.

  • Max Wheeler, a cable technician with Nez Perce Network Systems, installs broadband cables at a home in Lapwai, Idaho. A new report analyzes four tribal broadband projects, including the establishment of Nez Perce Network Systems.

  • Wheeler installs broadband cables at a home in Lapwai, Idaho.

  • Wheeler points out neighborhoods around Lapwai that have heavy broadband connectivity. In 2020, the Nez Perce Tribe funded 21 miles of fiber from Spaulding, Idaho, to Clarkston, Washington.

“With network sovereignty and spectrum sovereignty, it really comes down to the ability to decide your fate and ability to make your own choices,” Trostle said. By owning and operating essential resources for internal infrastructure such as spectrum — the radio frequencies that wireless signals use to travel — Indigenous communities have the opportunity to boost local economies and keep their power and data within their own nations, rather than relying on an external provider.

There is a growing movement to regard spectrum that covers Indian Country as a federal trust responsibility, similar to water or mineral rights. The federal government has historically tried to control such resources rather than recognizing that they fall under the purview of treaties, or acknowledging that the government has an ongoing legal trust responsibility to uphold these resources for the benefit of Indigenous nations.

“This is a problem that has been ignored in a lot of ways.”

“This is a problem that has been ignored in a lot of ways,” said Christopher Mitchell, the director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “It’s commonly said that the United States had a telephone system that was the envy of the world, and broadband followed that system. But even when our telephone system was at its peak, it often stopped on reservation boundaries — we still have much lower availability of telephone in tribal lands than we do for the population at large. So this is a continuation of a failure to deploy essential infrastructure.”

H Rose Trostle, author of the report, at their graduation ceremony for Arizona State University last May. “With network sovereignty and spectrum sovereignty, it really comes down to the ability to decide your fate (and) ability to make your own choices,” Trostle said.
Courtesy of Daniel Cox

There are approximately 40 tribally owned networks, according to the study, spreading across the boundaries of 65 Indigenous nations. Another 37 Indigenous nations are working in partnership with private providers. The institute’s list is the first of its kind, providing tribal nations and communities with a road map for partnerships and areas of high need when they’re developing their own infrastructure projects.

Four tribally owned networks were further analyzed to show how they successfully built their own Internet Service Providers (ISPs). The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, which created a broadband project that offers service to the tribal community, is one of the very few tribes to offer service off-territory to nearby counties in New York — thereby providing additional revenue to the tribe. But it wasn't easy: Mohawk Networks, the internet service provider, needed over a decade for planning and fundraising, and it took several years to string the 70 miles of fiber throughout the community.

In 2018, the Mohawk Networks crew designed and installed over 500 CAT5 cables in the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe’s new administration building.
Courtesy of Mohawk Networks

“If we deny the basic tools to tribes that they would use to connect people, we're asking them to figure out how to solve a problem with one hand tied behind the back, or both hands tied behind their back.”

Many Indigenous nations lack the access to capital that private internet service providers enjoy. Instead, they’re forced to rely on loans through the USDA or grants, which often have time limits or are single-purpose funding opportunities. Trostle said that one of the study’s goals is to prompt the federal government and lending institutions to consider overall systemic changes that would remove similar barriers to network projects, such as creating federal grants that are tailored toward Indigenous communities for basic planning, digital inclusion and network operation and maintenance.

Currently, the FCC auctions spectrum licenses to different entities based on geographic areas. However, these often go to large communication corporations that seldom prioritize the rural geographic location of many tribal communities. “If we deny the basic tools to tribes that they would use to connect people, we're asking them to figure out how to solve a problem with one hand tied behind the back, or both hands tied behind their back,” said Mitchell. “It's very frustrating to me to watch as some companies have an exclusive right to spectrum, and they have no interest in deploying that in Indian Country. And yet no one else can use that spectrum there to make sure people are connected.”

Seeking to address this inequality, the FCC created the Rural Tribal Priority Window in February 2020 for tribes to apply for free 2.5GHz spectrum licenses — the first opportunity of its kind for tribes. Over 400 applications were submitted, showing the tremendous interest in and demand for this type of internet infrastructure. In the next couple of months, as the FCC continues to review applications and new tribal nations embark on their own internet infrastructure projects, this report will be a valuable resource for tribes to consult.

Jessica Douglas is an editorial fellow at  High Country News  and a member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.