Policy

Tribal leaders are building a better internet from the ground up

Underserved communities on tribal lands are building decentralized, affordable local networks to bridge the digital divide.

Pascua Yaqui Indian Reservation, Arizona

A growing roster of communities, tired of waiting for federal policymakers to act, are taking matters into their own hands in a bid to build the decentralized, more equitable networks of tomorrow.

Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Despite creating the predecessor of the modern internet, U.S. broadband access has remained mired in mediocrity for decades, with Americans paying some of the highest prices in the developed world for spotty, slow connections and abysmal customer support.

Somewhere between 14 and 42 million Americans lack access to reliable broadband. Another 83 million Americans currently live under a broadband monopoly, with access to just one internet service provider (ISP). This lack of competition results in high prices, spotty coverage, poor customer service and even privacy violations.

It’s a problem forged by federal failure and rampant monopolization, evident everywhere from the densest urban streets to the most remote tribal territories. For the better part of a generation, U.S. internet access has been at the mercy of gatekeepers for whom community welfare, affordability and ubiquitous access were distant afterthoughts.

That’s particularly evident across sovereign tribal territories where a growing roster of communities, tired of waiting for federal policymakers to act, are taking matters into their own hands in a bid to build the decentralized, more equitable networks of tomorrow.

You can’t fix a problem you can’t measure

The U.S. has failed even to accurately measure the scope of the problem. The FCC’s broadband maps are notoriously inaccurate, and policymakers have operated for decades without an adequate understanding of the digital divide they were trying to fix.

Since the 1990s, the FCC declared an entire census block “served” with broadband if an ISP claimed it could provide service to just one address in the block. Regional monopolies have historically overstated their coverage areas and fought against more accurate maps, obscuring U.S. coverage, competition and affordability issues.

During the COVID crisis some U.S. school children — even in some of the country’s most affluent areas — had to huddle in the dirt outside of fast food restaurants to attend online class, making America’s broadband failures impossible to ignore. As society moved more intensely online, those already left out of reach became more cut off than ever.

One recent Consumer Reports study found that Black and Hispanic Americans struggle to afford broadband at a greater rate than white, non-Hispanic Americans. Marginalized Americans are also frequent victims of digital redlining, when a regional telecom giant simply refuses to install, upgrade or repair broadband networks in minority and low-income communities.

The problem is statistically worse on tribal lands, where the distribution of quality food, affordable electricity and even clean water are already a consistent challenge.

FCC data indicates that 35% of tribal residents lack access to even the FCC’s base definition of broadband (25 Mbps downstream, 3 Mbps upstream) — likely an under-estimate due to substandard mapping. Faster, more modern access speeds are much harder to come by. And if broadband is available, it often isn’t affordable.

If you want something done right …

Frustrated by market failure and federal government apathy, communities across the nation have started tackling the problem themselves. More than a thousand U.S. municipalities and tribal territories have built their own local broadband networks, which often provide faster, cheaper service than regional monopolies.

The trend accelerated during the COVID telecommuting and home education boom. As of 2021 there were an estimated 40 tribally owned networks operating in 65 Native nations, and another 37 Native nations currently working in partnerships with private providers.

In California, the Hoopa Valley Tribe is leveraging an $8.6 million grant to bring affordable fiber to the 92,000 acre reservation. And in Washington, both the Nisqually and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation have built their own free local wireless networks thanks to an FCC Tribal Priority program that has doled out wireless spectrum licenses to more than 150 tribes.

“COVID was a shock to everyone, and it became obvious as time went on that there were a lot of kids who had no access to the internet or devices to connect with,” Andrew Joseph, chairman of the Colville Tribal Council, told Protocol. “Many of the areas on the reservation are mostly rural and isolated, so the tribes worked with the local school districts to get the technology out to the kids. The plan was to get temporary emergency networks in place at no cost, with the intent that a more permanent solution would be forthcoming.”

Community broadband networks vary greatly and are highly tailored to local needs. Often they exist as an extension of municipal networks or existing utilities. Other times they take the form of a local cooperative or public-private partnership. In some instances they’re little more than ad-hoc wireless mesh network nodes cobbled together by persistent volunteers.

Near San Diego, decades of work by Matthew Rantanen, director of Technology for the Southern California Tribal Chairmen's Association, has culminated in Tribal Digital Village and TDVNet, a community network that provides affordable wireless broadband to some 108 tribal municipalities.

“Tribal Digital Village was really creative 20 years ago, but was a lot of work and required a lot of path-breaking,” Rantanen said. “It is still a challenge for tribes that are getting into this but they can stand on the shoulders of those that have already done it, and this will make it more feasible for many more tribes to do it.”

“There truly are these long-term 10-, 20-year investments in a different kind of economy, really visionary,” Marisa Duarte, a researcher and associate professor at Arizona State University, told Protocol. “That's native science. That's building our future ourselves — willing to take on the risk ourselves instead of asking for an external company to come in and just get those houses wired.”

Ignorant assumptions, worse policy

Through much of the ‘90s, U.S. policymaking was informed by lazy, harmful assumptions that tribal populations were backward or somehow technologically averse, Duarte said.
“It was as if their culture was a sort of disability,” she added, noting that a sort of “Euro-American imaginary” vision of Native communities and cultures dominated the discourse, stymying federal telecom reform efforts well into the 2000s.

It was only in 2010 that the U.S. government created an Office of Native Affairs & Policy within the FCC, specifically tasked with helping Native nations develop internet infrastructure.

“The whole argument about how tribes lack a cultural responsiveness to digital technologies is a way of erasing us from the game — the reality that those airwaves are a sovereign resource of sovereign Indian land,” said Duarte, herself a member of the Pascua Yaqui tribe.

Delivering high-quality, affordable broadband of any kind requires access to fiber-optic cable and transit bandwidth. But many early fiber expansion efforts in the U.S. simply passed over tribal areas out of convenience, cost or apathy, said Rantanen.

“Anything that slowed them down was bypassed and many of these firms didn't want to learn how to interact with the tribes and follow their processes,” he said. “As such, I’ve seen where a fiber line goes in a straight line for a long time, then suddenly pulls a 90-degree angle and follows the outline of a reservation on the outside to bypass it.”

Duarte made a similar observation, noting that Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico has long had some of the fastest internet access in the country, yet neighboring tribes still don’t even have basic access. Similarly, Arizona State University efforts to expand access for supercomputing projects have often ignored that neighboring tribes exist, she said.

“They’re not really thinking about the tribes that are in rural parts of Arizona or along the I-17 lands along the highways and the freeways,” she said. “They're trying to sort of leap right over them and not take responsibility for providing for those communities.”

As a result, it’s not uncommon for tribal residents to drive hours to a local highway rest stop or community center simply to check their email, conduct business or attend online class. This level of disconnection not only severs tribal communities from opportunity, but it also severs the internet from the cultural contributions these diverse populations bring to the broader world.

“I really think of it as technological redlining. It's a form of segregation,” Duarte said.

Federal apathy and unforgiving geography aren’t the only challenges to building more equitable internet access on tribal lands. Efforts also need to consider everything from wireless spectrum availability to the often differing belief systems of neighboring tribes.

“Hopi and Navajo have very different philosophies about economic development and they literally have different resources,” Duarte said. “The Navajo nation makes deals with Chevron. Hopi doesn't even allow casino gaming, you know — just completely different viewpoints.”

Federal policies and outside interventions have often treated tribal interests as uniform and homogenized, but that’s frequently not the case, said Christopher Mitchell, director of the ILSR Community Broadband Networks Initiative.

“I think many people think of tribes as each being thousands of people on perhaps tens of thousands of acres in the West,” he said. “But many are quite small and have very small amounts of land where they are sovereign. This creates a major challenge both in terms of the economics of building a network that is financially sustainable as well as challenges in developing a workforce to build and operate the network.”

This is all made significantly more complicated by limited resources and a multigenerational history of marginalization and brutal colonialism. “They often have fewer opportunities due to their history and even recent poorly considered federal interventions,” Mitchell said.

Addressing the errors of the past

As with the broader country, it’s also difficult to fix a problem the federal government has repeatedly failed to accurately measure. GAO studies have shown that U.S. broadband and wireless spectrum availability maps are particularly poor in tribal areas, making it difficult for under-resourced tribes to even determine where to start.

“I think it’s downright criminal, to be honest,” Duarte said of the federal government’s tribal broadband maps.

Navigating federal grant application bureaucracy also often disadvantages tribal applicants, and is even more difficult for tribes that lack federal recognition. The entire process can prove particularly daunting for small Native nations struggling with basic survival.

“They’re trying to do health, education, maintain roads on the reservation, they’re trying to do everything,” Duarte said. “So they don’t really have a whole lot of energy to be hunting down statistics.”

Once tribes identify gaps, propose solutions and apply for grants, they’ll often face challenges from telecom monopolies looking to protect their turf. Regional monopolies often point to the faulty federal maps to falsely claim service already exists and improvements aren’t necessary, then hoover up limited subsidies for deployments tribal leaders say are often half completed.

“Many of these companies receive federal funds, tie them up for five to six years and then do not complete the projects,” Joseph said. “However, they are not held accountable and are able to then get additional funding from other programs, and continue tying up these funds without ever building out.”

“I think it’s predatory when it comes to Indian country,” Duarte said. “It’s particularly painful for these communities that are already economically disenfranchised.”

Despite years of federal dysfunction, there are promising signs of change. Prompted by Congress, the FCC has taken steps to finally improve its broadband maps, though promised improvements have yet to materialize. The agency has also launched workshops to specifically help tribal leaders identify coverage and affordability gaps.

This year, the government also unveiled a once-in-a-generation investment in broadband courtesy of the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, $42 billion of which will be used to expand internet access. Of that, $2 billion will be doled out specifically to improve access in tribal territories. Another $1 billion in tribal broadband funding is currently being administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

But tribal leaders all say that even this historic investment in internet access only puts a down payment on the long-neglected connectivity needs of tribal communities.

“In the fourth quarter of 2021, we saw 305 of the 574 federally recognized tribes apply for $1 billion dollars through NTIA, in a total ask of $5.2 billion dollars,” said Rantanen. But he estimates it would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $8 to $10 billion dollars to bring affordable fiber broadband to every U.S. Native nation.

“The government should give tribes priority to federal funds for internet access in Indian country or on Indian lands, instead of giving those funds to third parties who are less interested,” Joseph said.

More funding, better maps, sovereign control of wireless spectrum and more consistent federal leadership could go a long way toward bridging the digital divide on tribal lands. But for now, it’s clear that many tribal communities will continue doing most of the heavy lifting themselves.

Despite being disadvantaged by generations of discrimination and grotesque generalizations, a new generation of Native populations say they’re up to the challenge.

“We’re not dead, we’re not in the past, we’re not primitive, we’re not pre-technological, and we’re not anti-technological,” Duarte said. “We’ve got Native people who are programmers, Native people who run their own telecom networks. We can do this.”

Karl Bode is a freelancer.

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