Thin on broadband: Tribal areas still struggle with lagging technology

Broadband internet access to homes and businesses in tribal areas is lower than elsewhere in the country, where the density of customers makes broadband service a more attractive business proposition. (Photo by Theophilos Papadopoulous/Creative Commons)

By Keerthi Vedantam

WASHINGTON – “Just Google it.”

Carroll Onsae says it’s a joke among Hopi, who have broadband internet in only some pockets of the reservation. And even there it works slowly.

“Our area is economically disadvantaged. It’s a hardship for families to not have service to broadband services,” said Onsae, the general manager of Hopi Telecommunications Inc.

Only about 29% of Hopi households have access to broadband, compared to 79% in Arizona and 78% nationwide, according to Census Bureau data.

The Hopi are not alone. Fewer than half the households on tribal lands in Arizona have access to broadband internet, and only one – the Yavapai-Prescott Indian Tribe – exceeds the state average, according to the Census.

“People take for granted when they live in urban or suburban areas that they can log on and take an online class, for example,” said Darlene Burden, who has worked in tribal telecommunication since 2008. “They take advantage of the fact that they can apply for a job. Of course for those things you have to have broadband access.”

But advocates say broadband can mean so much more in tribal areas. On reservations with a high rate of doctor turnover, it can mean uninterrupted time with an online therapist or a video chat with a doctor. For students, it might mean access to different educational resources and for small businesses, a strong network could help put them on the map.

“Access to high-speed internet is absolutely critical now more than ever,” said Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Phoenix. “We need to close that digital divide between urban and rural areas so people have access to the things they need.”

Stanton last month amended the House bill restoring net neutrality to require that the Federal Communications Commission work more closely with tribal nations to assess their internet needs and to improve access and reliability. That bill passed the House, but is not expected to pass the Senate.

Stanton’s amendment cited a Government Accountability Office report last year that said the FCC overstated availability of internet access on tribal lands and does not collect information about the quality or affordability of broadband service. That can affect commission decisions on which areas get funding to build and improve connection lines.

“We need to make sure that as we advance, we don’t leave other people in our own state behind,” he said.

But challenges to broadband are significant on reservations. Besides having to cover large swaths of sparsely populated rural land, many reservations systems still operate with copper lines or weak fiber optics.

Doug Kitch, a consultant with Alexicon, which works to regulate rural telecom providers, said companies will “not incur the necessary cost to provide service to those areas” to deploy and maintain bandwidth.

“They would rather get 20,000, 50,000 subscribers per square mile instead of one subscriber per square mile” that a company might get on a reservation, he said.

With no private firms interested in the high-cost, low-density markets that are tribal areas, some tribes decided to step in and provide service themselves.

Kitch said major carriers “wouldn’t even come in and offer service to the majority of these reservations, so these tribes built their own telecommunications networks. They’re going to do what’s best for their community.”

There are nine tribally owned and operated telecommunication companies in the U.S., five of which are in Arizona, according to the National Tribal Telecommunications Association. One of those is Hopi Telecommunications Inc., which the tribe started in 2004.

“One of our goals is to provide affordable, reliable internet access,” Onsae said. “Not just telephone calls.”

Affordable and reliable internet is no cheaper for tribal carriers than it is for larger companies – and tribes can face added layers of federal regulations, experts say.

The Hopi service relies on federal loans to expand its network. Last year, it got an Agriculture Department loan to bring internet access to another 650 homes on the reservation through a fiber-optic connection and let those on old-technology copper lines get faster internet access.

“We are having to build our infrastructure so that those who do not have access will have access, but it is requiring a lot of capital and loans,” Onsae said. “We’re doing OK, and being OK is driven by the number of customers who can afford to buy the service.”

But access and reliability can be a delicate balancing act for providers in rural areas.

Onsae said his firm would have to take out more loans to make service more widely available – loans that would have to be paid back by customers who would be added to the expanding network. All of which comes at a cost.

“So if they (customers) can’t afford it, we can’t pay back those loans to make it more available,” he said.

Kitch said more needs to be done to help reservations improve infrastructure for broadband and to provide more opportunities to the households that need it.

“Those areas have unique circumstances, they have cultural and environmental issues they have to address,” Kitch said. “These tribes need more funding … in order to deploy modern networks and get their communities up to standards around the nation.”

Onsae is hopeful for the future of increased internet access on reservations, and has already seen a change since the Hopi established their own telecommunication network.

“Now they can do all kinds of things you and I would do,” Onsae said. “Like Google.”

8 Comments

  1. They aren’t alone. You too can live 5 miles out of town and be in the middle of nowhere.. where your provider is the illustrious CenturyLink… promise of 1.5 mb down(!) with reality of .8 on a good day. Maybe they’d be better off WITHOUT Google.

  2. Bickering, Greed, Blame
    Its time they take care of their own They have the means if they could just get along with each other
    They dont want to take a loss but are asking another cell phone comp to. They get free phones from the our goverment
    Have you seen the expenive phones many have ? I cant afford one but they can 800 dollar phones
    They dont share with in their own tribes They play favortism
    Greed is a big motive for them
    The past has mothing to do with this.
    Its proven that many Native Americans have done well and took advantage of the programs
    And are living outstanding lives they freed them selves of blame
    But theres the others who refused to learn but tbey take that Gov ck every month and use it on drugs and alcohol
    Stop the bickering The greed from with in
    These people can do amazing things together on their own
    They have to recognize what they have done wrong with in their own bussiness dealings and greed and move forward to help others Not asking for more money
    Send your young to schools to learn, Companys in the building world hire Navajos because they make some of the best welders and they train them for free
    Now why is it in this world now they cant provide for their own ? Money has always poured in to the betterment of Native Americans Its the leaders that need replacing the ones that think they are better then the another clan ..Its time they share their wealth and knowledge to improve whats with in
    Not ask for more handouts

    • No surprise that greed and all the rest is as alive and well on “reservations” as it is off-reservation!

  3. We give the reservations plenty of money. The reservations should serve as a great example to the American people regarding the abject failures of big government.

    • The Tribes are given nothing let alone money.
      1924 that’s 90 years ago Congress made American Indians citizens unless they lived on reservations so the act of 1934 which was 80 years ago they became citizens. It would be 1968 that’s 46 years ago they gained the right to vote with-out testing first, and a year later 1969 which is 45 years ago gaining the Right of Freedom of Religion.
      Less than half of all the Tribes have Federal Recognition. From the BIA there are 566 Tribes that have it along with 54 that have only State. 2378 have none with 798 that have applied for Federal right now which includes the 54 that has only State. At this time American Indian or Native Americans make up less (just under) than one percent of the population of this Country. Only Federal can have anything on the Reservation to generate funds, but it has to be approved by the State who also gets a cut from the profits, then Both Houses of Congress, the BIA along with the BLM. If any of them say no then it doesn’t happen, and you apply again.

  4. Is it any wonder when both Houses of Congress has to agree plus the BIA, and then the State to put anything on a reservation. Esp.. a one with no State or Federal Recognition.

    • No such thing as a “White man” or any color of man. That’s pure media related. The first other than the humans living here to land in South America then come up were the Spsnish, and Portuguese. Then slaves, and all of them a dark shade of skin.

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