How Native American Tribes are Using 5G to Get Online

Bridging the digital divide

Key Takeaways

  • Many rural areas and Native American reservations lack internet connectivity, and some companies are trying to fill the gap with 5G technology. 
  • The FCC reported in 2017 that 34% of Native Americans who live on rural tribal lands lacked access to sufficient broadband capabilities. 
  • For tribes desperately lacking access to the internet, wireless service can be a quick solution.
Someone using a laptop on a wooden dock in the middle of a rural field.

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Many residents of Native American reservations and other rural areas in the US can’t get online, and some companies think 5G technology could be part of the solution. 

Nokia and NewCore Wireless recently began bringing 5G wireless networking and 4.9G/LTE service to underserved communities. The move is part of a growing effort to bring broadband to places where laying fiber optic cables would be prohibitively expensive. 

"The reality is that broadband access and wireless service are essential for leading a productive life," Ed Cholerton, a senior vice president at Nokia, said in an email interview.

"Whether it is for work, school, health care, public safety, or just general communications, modern communications technology has become as fundamental to our lives as electricity, water service, and other essential utilities."

Western Tribes Are First to Get New Broadband

Nokia’s first wave of deployments covers over 12,000 square miles, and will provide broadband connectivity to more than 15,000 tribal members. The company first will focus on North and South Dakota, Oklahoma, and California, to serve the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes.

"All members of our community, including our elders whom we pride ourselves in helping, will benefit from more affordable and accessible connectivity," John Pretty Bear, councilman for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s Cannonball District, said in a news release.

Someone using a smartphone at dawn in Monument Valley, Utah.

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"This is critical for the well-being of our people, especially during the pandemic, where information about mass testing or vaccinations needs to be shared in real-time."

In 2017, the FCC reported that 34% of Native Americans who live on rural tribal lands lacked access to sufficient broadband capabilities. Last year, the FCC offered tribes in rural areas access to the unassigned 2.5 GHz spectrum known as Education Broadband Service, or EBS. 

A few tribes have built wireless networks using the EBS spectrum. Still, most have not yet deployed a wireless network, said Mike Kerr, co-founder of Terranet Communications, a network solutions provider.

One exception is the Nisqually Indian Tribe. The tribe built a network that provides online classes for students and continuing education for teachers, with plans for a remote charter high school.

"Economic disparities are exacerbated by lack of access to high-speed internet, and communities that lack high-speed internet connectivity are at a huge disadvantage," Kerr said. 

Paying for wireless networks is a challenge, but there is also recent good news for tribes. In February, the Department of Commerce announced the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Grants Program, providing $1 billion in federal grants to tribal governments and related entities.

Nokia Claims 5G Is the Quick Solution

For tribes urgently lacking access to the internet, wireless service can be a quick solution, Cholerton said.  

"Alternate technologies like wired or fiber-based broadband are great, but they take a long time to build for each home and business," he added. 

The 2.5 GHz spectrum is well suited to operate both LTE and 5G service, and is part of the mid-band "sweet spot" that enables the optimal mix of service range and capacity, he said.

Someone working in a craft shop with a tablet computer laying on the workbench.

Mac Romanelli / Getty Images

"This way, the largest number of people have access to both mobile and broadband coverage, as well as the speed necessary to run all the essential work, education, public safety, and even entertainment services," he added. 

But not everyone thinks 5G is the right way to bring the internet to underserved communities.

Traditional fiber networks have extremely low cost of operation, nearly limitless bandwidth, and a lifetime measured in decades, Alan DiCicco, a senior director at cloud and software company Calix, which counts communications service providers as clients, said in an email interview. 

"Accepting 5G as the solution to deliver high-speed broadband to remote areas perpetuates the accepted belief that people in rural communities somehow don’t need the same quality of service as those who live in urban areas," he added.

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