Coronavirus Widens Digital Divide for Native Americans

Proposed bill would expand access to broadband internet service

Key Takeaways

  • A proposed $100 million pilot program would provide broadband internet access for tribes.
  • Indian reservations have the lowest rate of Internet coverage than anywhere else in the United States. 
  • Good internet access is necessary to maintain social distancing during the pandemic, one expert says.
Woman using mobile at sunrise in Monument Valley
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Proposed federal legislation is aimed at bringing broadband to the many people living on Native American reservations who lack internet access. 

The Tribal Connect Act would create a $100 million pilot program to provide broadband internet access for tribes without a library. Vast numbers of people living on remote reservations don’t have internet access. Native Americans need web access (as we all do) as they struggle to maintain social distancing during the pandemic. 

“As coronavirus has forced schools and businesses to go remote, the digital divide in Arizona’s Native American communities has sharpened,” US Senator Martha McSally (R-AZ), one of the bill’s sponsors, said in a statement. “Our bill will help bridge that divide by investing in broadband connectivity and improving internet access in Native American communities over time so that our tribal students and families have greater access to quality education, jobs, and other public resources.”

An Underserved Population

Indian reservations have the lowest rate of Internet coverage of anywhere in the United States, according to an FCC report. Nearly 35 percent of people living on reservations lack high-speed internet access, the agency said. 

The bill would increase access to the Federal Communications Commission's schools and libraries universal service support program. The $4 billion program, known as E-rate, provides discounts to help public schools and libraries obtain high-speed internet access and telecommunications at affordable rates.

Fiber optic with emitting light
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On the Santee Sioux Reservation in Nebraska, Internet access is so hard to get that people cluster outside the local school and casino in order to get a Wi-Fi signal, Cindy Hohl, president of the American Indian Library Association, said in a phone interview. 

“Lack of internet access hurts job opportunities and education,” Hohl said. 

She grew up in the town of Santee, Nebraska, with a population around 300. Like many rural communities, the town lacks a fiber-optic network because there aren’t enough residents to make it profitable for a telecommunications company to build one, she said.

The dearth of internet access “is part of the many layers of oppression” suffered by Native Americans, she added, saying “It seems like we are always being put on the back burner. As a librarian, it’s near and dear to my heart the belief that everyone should have equal access to information.” 

Fast Internet Equals Safety

Good internet access is necessary to maintain social distancing during the pandemic, said Mark Buell, Regional Vice President of North America at the Internet Society, a nonprofit devoted to expanding internet access. Native Americans are disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a CDC report, with the rate of infections among Native Americans being 3.5 times that of among non-Hispanic white persons. 

“If a community has good quality web access it means the people in the community don't have to leave it to access those services and potentially expose themselves or their children to Coronavirus,” Buell said.

Companies are trying to fill in the gaps in internet coverage. MuralNet is teaming up with Cisco to launch the Sustainable Tribal Networks program that is designed to enable tribes to build and grow their own fixed wireless high-speed networks. Arcadian Infracom is working to bring fiber-optic connections to the Navajo Nation.

"As coronavirus has forced schools and businesses to go remote, the digital divide in Arizona’s Native American communities has sharpened."

Buell’s organization is working with indigenous peoples to build their own high-speed internet networks. “They build, operate, and manage the network from start to finish. Everything from putting up the towers [and] basic finances, to writing proposals [and] funding agencies that want to expand their networks,” he said.

He pointed to the case of a native Hawaiian community near Honolulu which previously had no internet access. “We worked with them over the past year to ensure that they have the skills and resources they needed to deploy their own network,” he said. “So when the lockdown started happening and when COVID-19 started to kill, kids were able to stay in the community, whereas before that they would have to go to the McDonald's or the Starbucks in a nearby community to do their homework.”

Update 9/17/20 3:47 ET: We've updated the article to better reflect Cindy Hohl's current location.