Native nations with scarce internet are building their own broadband networks

On the Hopi Reservation’s more than 1.5 million acres of desert
landscape in northeast Arizona, most residents live in villages atop
arid mesas.

Below ground, there’s a network of copper wires that provides
telephone and internet service. Hopi Telecommunications in 2004
bought the company that had installed them, but has been struggling ever
since to upgrade the network to broadband speeds.

Hopi Telecommunications serves both the Hopi reservation and parts of
the surrounding Navajo Nation. To broaden access, the company provided
free internet for students during the COVID-19 pandemic and began
offering discounted prices for residents through a federal program.

But the copper wires aren’t reaching all the reservation’s residents,
nor providing the fastest service, as fiber optic cables would. Hopi
Telecommunications received two federal grants — one from the Tribal
Broadband Connectivity Program and the other from the Rural Utilities Service — to provide fiber directly to homes. But the project, which began in September, won’t be finished until sometime in 2025.

“It’s very important for us to have the higher bandwidth, and we
can’t do that with copper,” said Alicia Youvella, the company’s service
order coordinator. “It’s literally like pulling the veins out of the
earth and having to relay down new ones.”

Native nations historically
have lagged in access to high-speed internet, because of the cost and
incomplete broadband coverage data, among other barriers. The inequity
became even more apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, when broadband
internet service was a crucial lifeline for people stuck in their homes.

So, some Native nations such as the Hopi are taking the matter into
their own hands by building their own networks to provide high-speed
internet. They also are tapping into a recent increase in state and
federal funding to expand broadband across the country.

“It’s within our mission to be able to be self-sufficient to
hopefully grow in a way that we can provide the types of services that
are needed out here,” Youvella said. “And we’ve had a boost — in small
little steps — but it’s happening.”

Broadband technology,
including fiber networks, wireless networks and satellite, allows data
to move much more quickly than dial-up internet through copper telephone
lines.

In 2020, more than 18% of people living on tribal lands didn’t have
access to broadband technology, compared with about 4% of people living
in non-tribal areas, according to a report
from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The agency analyzed the
data after a previous GAO report found that Federal Communications
Commission data was overstating broadband internet access on tribal lands, making it difficult to win additional funding and support.

Some states are trying to help tribal efforts. In 2023, Louisiana,
Montana, New Mexico and Oregon enacted laws to support broadband
expansion by streamlining funding to local governments, including tribes
and underserved communities.

One of the measures in California’s Digital Equity Bill of Rights, a first-of-its-kind bill signed into law
by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in October, outlines how the state
should ensure that all Californians have equal access to broadband. The
new law was pushed by the California Emerging Technology Fund, a
nonprofit aimed at closing the state’s digital divide — the widening gap between who can and cannot access digital technology.

But Matthew Rantanen, the director of technology at the Southern
California Tribal Chairmen’s Association, says there’s still work to do
nationwide. Rantanen, a descendant of the Cree Nation, has worked for
two decades with Native communities across the country to secure
broadband access.

“As you’re sitting there physically building a network you run into a
lot of, ‘Well, how come we can’t get funding for this when everybody
else can?’, or ‘Tribes don’t have access to this spectrum because
nobody’s using it,’ and so on,” Rantanen said. “And so, you start
fighting these policy pieces and figuring out there’s a lot of parts
that need to be sorted.”

Rantanen hosts Tribal Broadband Bootcamps to equip tribes to build and maintain wireless networks in their communities.

“You can’t be a part of society if you don’t have access to the
resources,” Rantanen said. “[Internet is] hand-in-hand now with water
and a roof over your head and electricity to be able to be a citizen in
this day and age.”

Building their own networks

FCC data overstates tribal access to broadband service, which limits
the federal government’s and tribal leaders’ ability to best provide
support, according to the Government Accountability Office report.

BroadbandNow, a data collection and research entity, estimates that 42 million Americans do not have access to broadband internet.

“It’s not just in Indian Country, but it’s, in fact, across the
entire United States,” said Frank Martinez, the vice president of
strategic initiatives at Connected Nation.

For over 20 years, Connected Nation, a national nonprofit, has worked
with federal, state, local and tribal agencies to help close that
digital divide. Martinez, who grew up on the Navajo Nation’s reservation
spanning parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, said there is no
one-size-fits-all solution for Native nations that vary in size,
topography and culture.

“There’s a lot of similarities, but there’s a lot of differences,”
Martinez said. “I think that trying to prescribe solutions in broadband
to meet a whole broad type of those cultures and nations can be very
complicated.”

From the Coeur d’Alene Tribe in Idaho to the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe
in New York, some Native nations are successfully developing their own
infrastructure for better internet, as detailed in a 2021 report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a national nonprofit that works to “build local power to fight corporate control.”

In South Dakota, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe recently received a more than $40 million grant
for the installation of a fiber and LTE network that will connect 1,526
unserved Native American households. South Dakota state Sen. Shawn
Bordeaux, a Democrat and member of the tribe, told Stateline the new
network will prevent the region’s current provider, which has a
monopoly, from dictating the price and quality of services for everyone
in the area.

Paying for a network and offering affordable prices for residents
have been perennial challenges for tribes, said Joe Valandra, the chair
and CEO of Tribal Ready. Tribal Ready, a Native-owned and -governed
company, helps tribes secure access to broadband funding and resources.

Internet providers that serve Native nations, despite receiving
federal and state grants, have not always put that money into tribes in
rural areas, Valandra said.

“Tribes have realized that unless they take this bull by the horns
and find a way to do it themselves — or find credible partners that can
help them do it right — it’s not going to happen,” Valandra said.
“Giving money to the incumbent provider hasn’t worked before, and
there’s no faith that it’ll work now.”

Tribal Ready helps Native nations identify funding and programs that
will let them set up a network completely under the control of the
tribe, if possible. The goal, Valandra said, is to empower tribes to
regulate broadband as they do other public utilities.

“I think we’ll see over the next decade or so more tribes standing up
their own utility authority to encompass this because it’s a benefit
for their communities,” he said.

Money and staffing challenges

Up until recently, broadband providers and tribal leaders were mainly
focused on building broadband networks, said H Trostle, senior policy
analyst at the Center for Indian Country Development at the Federal
Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Now the conversation has shifted to how to
sustain those networks over the long term.

Trostle praised the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program,
which subsidizes broadband service for low-income families. The
subsidy, which is as much as $75 per month for households on qualifying
Native lands, shows up as a credit on the family’s monthly internet
bill.

But the FCC said last week
that if Congress does not provide more funding for the program soon,
the agency will begin winding it down and millions of households will
lose the benefit.

In a bid for more customers, some Native broadband companies are extending service beyond tribal lands, Trostle said.

“But one of the growing challenges is those operating and maintenance
costs that just never go away,” Trostle said. “And that’s especially
difficult for wireless networks because they have low capital costs, but
very high operations costs. So, it’s a very difficult policy point.”

Even with a Native broadband network in place, finding workers can be
a challenge. One problem is a shortage of housing. And Youvella, of
Hopi Telecommunications, said her company trains nearly every technician
who comes on board because few reservation residents have the requisite
education.

“These are our struggles, but again, we always somehow break through and we work through it,” Youvella said.