A government program aimed at reversing the longstanding connectivity issues on tribal lands is complicated by the pandemic.
Under the best circumstances, Linnea Jackson’s 85-year-old grandmother would struggle to navigate a virtual doctor’s appointment, but a poor internet connection made it nearly impossible. With the COVID-19 pandemic limiting visits to medical offices, Jackson, the general manager of the Hoopa Valley Public Utilities District, ended up using her cellphone as a hotspot — a Band-Aid for her community’s longstanding connectivity problems.
“This pandemic has really shown the need for tribes, whether they’re rural or near local cities, to have access to broadband,” Jackson said. Hoopa Valley, a rural tribal community of about 3,500 in Northern California, is “vastly underserved” in terms of internet services, a decades-old problem exacerbated by the pandemic. Telecommuting, online education and access to unemployment websites all require adequate internet service, something Jackson said more than 80% of Hoopa Valley homes currently need.
In 2018, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimated that 35% of Americans living on tribal lands lack broadband service — more than four times the country’s average. To help close the gap, the FCC opened a Rural Tribal Priority Window for tribes to apply for free 2.5GHz spectrum licenses in February. Matthew Rantanen, director of technology for the Southern California Tribal Chairmen's Association and a longtime digital sovereignty activist, said the window is an unprecedented opportunity for tribes to claim this valuable asset before it becomes publicly available. Once the window closes in August, the remaining licenses will be sold at auction, and most tribes will be unable to compete with the large telecom companies bidding for them. Experts hesitate to make predictions, but spectrum licenses are likely to go for thousands, if not millions of dollars.
The 2.5GHz spectrum frequency travels long distances and can penetrate trees and other structures, making it an ideal building block for wireless networks. Tribes could lease the spectrum out to companies like Sprint, which plans to use the licenses to support its growing 5GHz networks, and receive both broadband services and revenue in return. They could also create jobs for tribal citizens by building the networks themselves. But even as COVID-19 reveals the urgent need for increased digital and economic resources, it is also making it harder for tribes to take advantage of the opportunity.
At the moment, getting a license seems less urgent than fighting a pandemic that has already strained tribes’ limited resources. Fewer than 50 tribes have applied. Rantanen said that the pandemic has also dramatically reduced his ability to spread awareness. In a statement to High Country News, the FCC said it continues to provide outreach and support to tribes but did not specify how the pandemic has impacted those efforts.
In Hoopa Valley, Jackson heard about the opportunity through a friend, but has seen little publicity about it. Even for tribes aware of it, however, the pandemic is impeding their ability to complete the application. Tribal governments accustomed to operating in person now must coordinate virtually or over the phone. “It’s been a hindrance to have to maneuver the council government process via conference call,” said Jackson.
With tribal communities hit hard by COVID-19, many governments are too occupied to apply. “The same people that would be responsible for ensuring that a network could be deployed are now worried about emergency communications and getting essential services out to individuals,” said Danae Wilson, manager of the Nez Perce Tribe Department of Technology Services and co-chair of the Native Nations Communications Task Force at the FCC.
Rantanen stresses that broadband could also help tribal officials confront similar challenges in the future: “If you have access to broadband, you have access to resources, you have access to stay home and do all these things.” Because of the unprecedented challenges, Rantanen, Wilson and other activists are pushing the FCC for an extension until at least November. In its statement, the FCC did not mention any plans for an extension.
As word about the window slowly spreads, some temporary solutions have emerged. In April, the FCC granted the Navajo Nation a Special Temporary Authorization (STA) to broadband spectrum to help it confront the digital challenges of COVID-19. Once the STA was granted, MuralNet, a nonprofit that works with tribal communities, began buying supplies to set up temporary networks.
Darrah Blackwater, a Navajo volunteer with MuralNet, helped set up two networks on the Navajo Nation, which suffers from one of the country’s highest infection rates, as well as one of its lowest broadband connectivity rates. Earlier this month, the Congressional Native American Caucus proposed a bill that would give the temporary authorization to all tribes, along with other relief measures. Blackwater supports the bill, but said tribes need a permanent solution.
Blackwater also believes that the FCC window, which she sees as a rare chance to reverse the trend of outsiders claiming Native resources, must be extended. In the face of a pandemic, she is doing whatever she can to help tribes seize this opportunity. “If tribes don’t get control of their own spectrum, they’re only going to see the digital divide get wider and wider and wider.”