Why Native Tribes Struggle To Get Fast Internet And How It’s Improving

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  • The federal government funds broadband Internet access for rural Native Americans.
  • The plan is part of a larger initiative to bring high-speed internet access to more communities nationwide.
  • Experts say education, jobs and health care can suffer when communities lack broadband.

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


Federal authorities 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 employment, education and health care via the Internet. Experts say the grant is only a small part of the effort that needs to be made to connect tribal members across the country.


“Many Native American communities are located in very rural or remote areas, which makes the cost of building and operating internet infrastructure expensive,” said Mark Buell, director of native programs for the association at nonprofit Connect Humanity, to Lifewire in an email interview. “As a result, many incumbent ISPs have not invested in serving these communities because they do not see them as offering a high enough return on investment.”



Lack Internet

The Winnebago Tribe will receive funding to install fiber to directly connect 602 unserved tribal households, 40 businesses and 16 institutions. A 2020 FCC report found that 22.3% of Americans in rural areas and 27.7% in tribal lands lacked 25/3 Mbps terrestrial fixed broadband coverage, compared to just 1.5 % of Americans in urban areas.


Buell said many Indigenous communities are disproportionately affected by the connectivity deficit. To bridge the digital divide, his group advocates community-driven connected solutions, such as 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 the skills of 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, senior adviser of Indigenous Community Connectivity for the Internet Society, a nonprofit that advocates for internet development, said many Native Americans lacked access to broadband because until recently , broadband was seen as a profit-making product, and tribal communities were not profitable enough for large telecommunications providers.


“The internet is increasingly viewed as a utility, and the business model around it is being re-evaluated,” Lane added.


Lane noted that ISPs have mostly focused on densely populated areas where they can serve large numbers of customers at the lowest cost. Indigenous peoples on tribal lands often live in less populated areas, which poses geographic challenges for large suppliers.


“Not only have tribal communities been unprofitable to get online, but they have unique needs, both geographically and culturally, that have not been prioritized by major internet service providers,” added Lane.



The cost of lack of broadband

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


“The opportunities of the internet are especially huge for rural and remote communities,” he added. “When indigenous communities are connected, they are usually superusers. 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 get to a clinic.


Health care can also suffer when broadband fails on tribal lands. Ken Kontowicz, the tribal health liaison for NextGen Healthcare, a health informatics company, told Lifewire via email that during the pandemic, many tribal health centers have been forced to close because they did not have broadband that would allow virtual medical consultations.


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“Lack of high-speed infrastructure prevents a robust virtual visit environment, patient access to online services such as booking appointments, requesting medical records, renewing prescriptions,” a- he added. “Essentially, this means that patients are not getting the care they need when and where they need it, and this is reflected in the higher number of comorbidities and generally poorer health outcomes than the general population of United States.”


Grants like the one given to the Winnebago Tribe are part of the federal Tribal Connectivity Program. However, Kontowicz said, while funds have been made available, what is missing is an agency within the federal government to cohesively manage 25 different programs across 15 federal agencies that play a role in expanding. broadband access in rural and tribal areas.


“What currently exists is a hodgepodge of requirements that make it extremely difficult to apply for and obtain funding,” he added.

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