How a $1 Billion Broadband Upgrade Could Help Native Americans

Many reservations lack access to fast internet

Key Takeaways

  • Native American tribal areas are some of the least connected in the country. 
  • A $1 billion federal allocation could help build broadband for tribes. 
  • Some companies say that 5G technology could be vital to improving internet access on reservations.
Woman using mobile at sunrise in Monument Valley

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The digital divide wends its way through Native American reservations around the country, but a new federal initiative could help bridge the gap.

The Biden administration has allocated $1 billion in funding, which could help rural providers offer fiber broadband. The move could help the large number of Native Americans currently without high-speed internet access.

"For generations, a lack of infrastructure investment in Indian Country has left Tribes further behind in the digital divide than most areas of the country," Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary, said at a news conference announcing the funding.

"We have a responsibility as a country to build infrastructure that will fuel economic development, keep communities safe, and ensure everyone has opportunities to succeed."

A Digital Divide

Lack of broadband access is a big issue for tribes. While a little over two-thirds of Native American tribal lands in the continental U.S. have access to broadband internet, according to an American Indian Policy Institute analysis of federal data, this access is the bare minimum by the FCC—25 Mbps download 3 Mbps upload requirements. The same study found fewer than half of all residents had broadband in their own homes. 

"Lack of reliable broadband compounds already deep economic disparities among rural and distant communities," Scott Neuman, a vice president at Calix, which provides cloud, software platforms, systems, and services to communications service providers, said in an email interview. "Native American communities remain at a severe disadvantage due to their lack of access." 

"We have a responsibility as a country to build infrastructure that will fuel economic development, keep communities safe, and ensure everyone has opportunities to succeed."

The coronavirus pandemic showed how important online access is, experts say. 

"Over the course of the past 16 months, broadband has become as crucial as electricity and water," Neuman said. "People are working, learning, and accessing healthcare online—why shouldn’t everyone have the same quality of access?"

Since Native American communities are spread across large geographic areas, increased broadband access could boost health care, education, and commerce, Bart van Aardenne, the CEO of network solutions provider Terranet Communications, said in an email interview. 

"As health care moves increasingly online, telemedicine can provide patients access to resources that would otherwise be accessible only through long journeys or not at all," he added. "Modern education is inextricably bound to the internet, now more than ever. Moving forward, the process of delivering learning, doing homework, and communicating with parents and students will forever be tied into an online presence." 

5G Is Coming

The new funding will be used to build out communications infrastructure in tribal areas, van Aardenne said. The equipment will include the 4G and 5G radio network equipment and the connectivity needed to tie the local radio networks to the internet.

The installation of 5G networks is also about preserving the independence of tribes, some observers say. ISP Supplies works with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to bring broadband to their reservations. 

Cell phone tower in a rural areas.

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"Our partnership gives the tribes the ability to deploy private LTE/5G, allowing them to maintain their sovereignty while enabling economic opportunities among their members," David Peterson, a senior engineer at ISP Supplies, said in an email interview. 

Among the broadband options, 5G coverage is notably lacking on many tribal lands, Stephen Douglas, head of 5G strategy at telecommunications company Spirent, said in an email interview. Many Native Americas live in sparsely populated areas that are often not commercially attractive by commercial ISPs.  

"The often-rugged terrain makes the infrastructure complex and costly to build and deploy, making it difficult for poor communities to fund jointly," Douglas said. 

The technology behind 5G offers some advantages in rural areas, Douglas said. 

"The 5G low band spectrum, such as 2.5 GHz and 600 MHz, can provide long-range coverage lowering the number and cost of cell sites required and offering speeds between 100-300 Mbps which is significantly faster than 4G and comparable to fixed broadband," he added.

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