Why Indigenous Tribes Struggle to Get Fast Internet, and How It's Improving

Bridging the digital divide

  • The federal government is funding broadband internet access for rural Native Americans.
  • The plan is part of a broader initiative to get high-speed internet access to more communities nationwide.
  • Experts say education, jobs, and healthcare can suffer when communities lack broadband.
Rural landscape with wi-fi symbol and signal

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Native American reservations are among the many rural areas lacking reliable broadband access, and tribal members are fighting for better internet. 

Federal officials recently announced a $35 million grant to enable the Winnebago tribe of Nebraska to install high-speed internet fiber-optic cable. The money is intended to improve access to jobs, education, and healthcare through the internet. Experts say the grant is a small part of the effort that needs to go into connecting tribal members around the country. 

"Many Native American communities are located in very rural or remote areas, making the cost of building out and operating Internet infrastructure expensive," Mark Buell, the director of indigenous programs for the nonprofit Connect Humanity, told Lifewire in an email interview. "As a result, many incumbent ISPs have not invested in serving these communities because they don't see them as offering a sufficiently high return on investment."

Missing the Internet

The Winnebago tribe will receive funds to install fiber to directly connect 602 unserved tribal households, 40 businesses, and 16 institutions. A 2020 report by the FCC found that 22.3 percent of Americans in rural areas and 27.7 percent in Tribal lands lacked coverage from fixed terrestrial 25/3 Mbps broadband, compared to only 1.5 percent of Americans in urban areas.

Buell said that many indigenous communities are disproportionately affected by the connectivity gap. To bridge the digital divide, his group advocates for community-driven connected solutions like community or municipal networks. 

"These are Internet networks for the people, of the people, by the people," Buell added. "These community networks keep resources in local areas, build skills for local people and provide well-paying jobs. And they are shaped by the community to meet their specific needs."

Profit motives may be behind the lack of broadband for tribes. Sharayah Lane, the senior advisor of Indigenous Community Connectivity for The Internet Society, a nonprofit that advocates for internet development, said that many Native Americans lack access to broadband because, until recently, broadband has been considered a profit-driven commodity, and tribal communities have not been profitable enough for large telecom providers. 

"The Internet is increasingly being viewed as a utility, and the business model that surrounds it is being reevaluated," Lane added.

Lane noted that internet providers have primarily focused on densely populated areas where they can serve a large number of customers for the lowest cost. Indigenous people on tribal lands often live in less populated areas, posing geographical challenges for large providers. 

"Not only have tribal communities not been profitable to connect, but they have unique needs, both geographically and culturally, that have not been prioritized by large Internet providers," Lane added.

The Cost of Lacking Broadband

Lack of broadband can be isolating. Buell said tribes without high-speed internet often have limited access to online banking and work. 

"The internet's opportunities are particularly tremendous for rural and remote communities," he added. "When Indigenous communities get connected, they are typically super-users. If you live 80 miles from a health center, internet access could mean getting a virtual consultation rather than having to spend half a day and $100 to drive to a clinic."

Healthcare can also suffer when broadband is missing on tribal land. Ken Kontowicz, the tribal health liaison for NextGen Healthcare, a healthcare IT company, told Lifewire via email that during the pandemic, many tribal health centers were forced to close down because they did not have broadband that would allow virtual medical consultations. 

Indigenous Navajo man refilling a medicine prescription online from home with a laptop

RichLegg / Getty Images

"Lack of a high-speed infrastructure inhibits a robust virtual visit environment, patient access to online services such as making an appointment, requesting medical records, refilling prescriptions," he added. "Essentially, this means patients are not getting the care they need when and where they need it, and this is reflected in the higher number of co-morbidities and generally lower health outcomes compared to the overall general population of the United States."

Grants like the one provided to the Winnebago tribe are part of the federal Tribal Connectivity program. However, Kontowicz said, although the funds have been made available, what's lacking is one agency within the federal government to cohesively manage 25 different programs across 15 federal agencies that play a part in expanding Broadband access into rural and tribal areas.  

"What currently exists is a hodgepodge of requirements that make applying for and securing funding extremely challenging," he added.

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