Some 900 homes on the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa reservation will soon gain something that 80 percent of U.S. residents already take for granted—home access to high-speed Internet service. Thanks to two $3 million U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grants, plus an additional $2.2 million investment from the tribe, some 160 miles of broadband cable are being planted across the rural areas of the reservation, along with 79 additional miles to connect homes. The project, just started, is expected to be complete by fall 2018.
The Fond du Lac Fiber to the Home Initiative is intended to give all reservation residents—band members or no—the ability to access the education, job-searching, health and entertainment opportunities the Internet can provide.
“It’s a big project, and it’s a big commitment to help the rural parts of the reservation,” said Jason Hollinday, the Fond du Lac Band’s planning division director. “The people here are just kind of slowly falling behind.”
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Home Internet access isn’t a matter of frivolous Facebook social time. It’s a necessary tool for job searches and online applications, as well as class assignments for students from elementary school through college, Hollinday said. It’s a conduit for health service in many rural areas, not to mention essential for start-up and home-based enterprises, employment opportunities that can allow people to live and work on the reservation.
“If you don’t have wifi, you have to go somewhere that has it,” Hollinday said. “People are sitting in the [casino resort] parking lot in cars.”
Lack of high-speed Internet—a gap known as the digital divide—across Indian country has been flagged as an issue by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). A good 41 percent of those living on reservation tribal lands, or about 1.6 million people, lack access to high-speed Internet, according to a 2016 FCC report on broadband access. Most of those, about 1.3 million, live in rural parts of the reservations that make driving to access more difficult.
The digital divide goes beyond mere access for its own sake, according to Emily S. Donnellan, an assistant professor and public services librarian at Concordia University in Portland, Oregon. Applications for food stamps and other aid services are online, as are many job applications. Contacts with the Bureau of Indian Affairs often need to occur online. Education and emergency services are also aided by Internet access.
“Without the Internet, there is no way to have equitable access to services and justice,” Donnellan wrote in the American Indian Law Journal in July.
Take Wilhelmina Tsosie, a young Navajo woman who had to travel 30 miles to get Internet access for her final college assignments, working on a laptop in the lobby of a hotel with wireless service. The travel and time expense was proving too burdensome for her family, Donnellan wrote, citing Huffington Post.
“This was one of the big issues I saw on the reservations,” said Donnellan, a non-Native who grew up on the Pullayup Nation in Tacoma, Washington, to ICMN. Even so, she was astonished at “the sheer amount of lack of access” that her research revealed.
While the FCC cites 41 percent on reservations without such access, “I’m seeing more like seventy, eighty percent,” she said, adding that it may be in part because having Internet available does not necessarily mean it’s affordable. Her report suggested some solutions, from creating on-reservation hubs of Internet access, such as at libraries, to tapping unused frequencies, or “whitespaces,” to create wireless access.
“I don’t see a lot of push in this area,” she said. “Which is one of the reasons I’m pushing this so passionately.”
Others have also pointed to whitespaces as a potential solution to all U.S. rural areas lacking high-speed access. In July, Microsoft President Brad Smith posted the company’s strategy for connecting two million more rural homes by 2022.
“One key to deploying this strategy successfully is to use the right technology in the right places,” Smith wrote. “TV white spaces are expected to provide the best approach to reach approximately 80 percent of this underserved rural population, particularly in areas with a population density between two and 200 people per square mile. Microsoft itself has considerable experience with this technology, having deployed 20 TV white spaces projects worldwide that have served 185,000 users.”
Satellite coverage may be the most cost-effective way to bring Internet to rural areas and fill in those gaps, Smith added.
Whether such strategies will include reservations remains uncertain. Even as the rest of rural America gets attention for its lack of access, the same investment does not seem forthcoming in Indian country. Funding allocated for on-reservation projects can be “insultingly low,” according to The Guardian.
“A 2014 grant to Navajo’s state-owned Internet provider, which aspires to serve the community of 300,000 across an area larger than West Virginia, totaled some $32 million,” The Guardian reported in 2016. “AT&T of Tennessee received $156 million in federal money to provide broadband access to 81,000 homes in rural Tennessee the following year.”
On the Fond du Lac reservation, at least, that divide is being bridged thanks to the two USDA Community Connect grants and the tribal investment. Once those cables are in place, the band may retain control as its own Internet service provider (ISP) to maintain lower consumer costs.
“As of right now we’re working on becoming our own ISP,” Hollinday said. “We’ll own the network, and we’ll actually own the business.”