Today’s Solutions: March 03, 2024

A major chunk of the Hopi Reservation’s dry mesas in northeast Arizona is underserved by internet service. Hopi Telecommunications, which provides internet and telephone services in the area, is dealing with the restrictions of an out-of-date copper wire network. The company’s service order coordinator, Alicia Youvella, underlines the importance of upgrading: “It’s literally like pulling the veins out of the earth and having to relay down new ones.”

Despite providing free internet to kids during the COVID-19 outbreak and offering cheap pricing through federal programs, not all residents benefit because of the aging infrastructure. The company received federal subsidies to install fiber optic lines directly into homes, a project that began in September and is expected to be completed by 2025.

Native Nations take initiative against inequity

Native Nations, which have historically had little access to high-speed internet, were disproportionately affected by the pandemic, emphasizing the importance of solving the digital divide. The Hopi, among others, are taking control of the situation. The movement is motivated not just by necessity, but also by a desire to become self-sufficient and provide critical services to their communities.

“It’s within our mission to be self-sufficient and to grow in a way that we can provide the types of services that are needed out here,” says Youvella, reflecting the resilience of Native communities amidst adversity.

State initiatives and digital equity laws

Several jurisdictions have taken measures in response to the growing awareness of this digital gap. Louisiana, Montana, New Mexico, and Oregon passed laws in 2023 to streamline funding for broadband expansion, with a focus on underserved communities, including tribes. California’s Digital Equity Bill of Rights emphasizes the state’s commitment to providing equal broadband access to all residents.

Matthew Rantanen, director of technology for the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association, welcomes improvements but underlines the importance of a collaborative effort: “And we’ve had a boost — in small little steps — but it’s happening.”

The role of non-profits and challenges in broadband development

Nonprofit organizations, such as Connected Nation, have played critical roles in closing the digital divide. Frank Martinez, vice president of strategic initiatives at Connected Nation, emphasized the importance of specialized solutions due to the diversity of Native countries. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s 2021 report demonstrates effective broadband infrastructure construction in a variety of Native communities.

Traditional ways have failed, according to Joe Valandra, chair and CEO of Tribal Ready: “Giving money to the incumbent provider hasn’t worked before, and there’s no faith that it’ll work now.” Tribal Ready enables tribes to take control by identifying financial resources and programs to build networks under tribal governance.

Empowering tribes with independent networks

One of the most ongoing issues for tribes is financing and providing cheap prices for residents. Tribal Ready, as a Native-owned and governed organization, helps tribes navigate these obstacles. The ultimate goal is to give tribes the ability to control broadband in the same way that they regulate 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,” declared Joe Valandra.

Maintaining networks and workforce challenges

The focus has changed from network construction to network maintenance, with the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program providing subsidies to low-income families living on qualified Native territory. H Trostle of the Center for Indian Country Development emphasizes the difficulties of running and maintaining networks, particularly wireless networks with significant operational expenses.

Youvella of Hopi Telecommunications sheds light on the workforce challenges: “These are our struggles, but again, we always somehow break through and we work through it.” Housing constraints exacerbate the challenge of hiring skilled staff, prompting the corporation to invest in extensive training programs.

Navigating the digital frontier with determination

As Native nations traverse the digital frontier, a tapestry of difficulties and achievements develops. From modernizing aging infrastructure to developing independent networks, the process is characterized by resilience. With growing state and federal backing, tribal communities are crafting a connected future in which they control their digital destiny.

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