Tribal Lands Struggle for Broadband Access

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According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 53 percent of Native Americans that own a computer and live on reservations or tribal lands, report having access to high-speed internet, National Public Radio reported. The American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census bureau began in 2013, to collect data about internet access across the U.S. Over 80 percent of the rest of the U.S. with computers, reported having access to high-speed internet between the years of 2013 and 2017. The bureau’s survey also revealed a large gap in broadband access between Native Americans in general (67 percent) and those who do not identity as American Indian or Alaska Native (82 percent).

Traci Morris, leader of The American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University and member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, expected these low rates of access to be reported. Morris said, “We’re the least connected. We’re under-served.” According to NPR, many Native Americans living in these rural areas use their mobile phones for internet access, but some do not even have cell coverage, and must travel to a library, school or tribal office for access. Morris said tribal lands have struggled to convince providers to deploy infrastructure because it’s cost-prohibitive in sparsely populated areas.  

To persuade service providers to deploy rural infrastructure, federal funding is available from the FCC and the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service. Less than one percent of this funding was given to tribes or companies owned by tribes between the years of 2010 and 2017, according to a Government Accountability Office report. GAO researchers reported eight tribe representatives described the federal grant applications as confusing, and the requirements for the grant to be unrealistic. After reviewing initial map challenge data, the agency is now concerned about potential fraud (see top story.)

The GAO reported the inaccurate data played a role in tribes not receiving federal funding. Former chief of the FCC’s Office of Native Affairs and Policy, Geoff Blackwell, addressed the GAO report at a Senate hearing in October, according to NPR. He said, “I hope the true obstacles of Indian Country will be revealed by new data so that government and industry can look at new models, new approaches and new incentives. It really does start with having the right data.”  Comments? Email us.

December 10, 2018

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