Congress could spend a lot on broadband. Tribal nations say it can’t happen soon enough.

The internet connection was so bad when Tracey Yazzie’s kids enrolled in Navajo Nation School in Arizona last year that educators switched to a low-tech solution: paper, pencil, and a yellow school bus. .

Each week, a Round Rock school bus dropped off packets of schoolwork for Yazzie’s two children, who had very little interaction with teachers and other students, due to erratic internet service when the pandemic shut down schools, she said.

“It was very difficult,” said Yazzie, a 33-year-old nurse. “But at least we have dial-up access at home. Many families in the school have no connection. “

Tracey Yazzie, of Round Rock, Ariz., On the Navajo Nation, has dial-up Internet access at home. Many families in her area do not have an Internet connection at all at home.Alaina beautiful bald eagle

Affordable high-speed and high-speed internet access is rare in the Navajo Nation, the reservation that spans three states in the southwestern United States and is larger than the state of West Virginia. And its absence for many families, especially in the past 15 months, has further shown how essential access to it is for residents to participate in the basic elements of society.

It’s an issue the Biden administration is seeking to address as part of its infrastructure push. Despite initially divergent views on how much to spend, expanding broadband access is one of the few areas Democrats and Republicans agree on.

The first iteration of President Joe Biden‘s U.S. Jobs Plan – which proposed $ 2.25 trillion in overall spending to rebuild 20,000 kilometers of roads, improve public housing, and invest in senior care – included $ 100 billion dollars to expand broadband access on Native American lands and other rural areas. Republicans pushing for a narrower $ 568 billion proposal had offered to spend $ 65 billion on broadband, an amount the White House said on Friday as acceptable as part of a $ 1.7 trillion counter-offer. of dollars. Republicans have indicated that even with a reduced price, big differences remain, especially around what counts as “infrastructure.”

“There is a place where we can find bipartisanship and this is something I brought up to the president: first we have to start with defining what infrastructure is,” said the minority leader. in the House, Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., last week following a White House meeting on infrastructure. “These are roads, bridges, highways, airports, broadband. These are the places where we could find common ground to work together. “

Tribal leaders, internet access experts and residents of reserves in different parts of the United States say the kind of investment that Congress is considering is long overdue.

“Broadband is basic infrastructure. It’s as necessary now as electricity once was, ”said Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, DN.M., chair of the House Subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples of the United States, in an interview. “Everyone now knows, viscerally, what it means to depend on the Internet.”

“This type of package would not only provide resources for putting lines in the ground or above, but it would also end up saving lives, when you think about how it can help people get vaccinated, get an education, ”she added. “We can’t leave anyone behind.”

The pandemic exposes the digital divide

According to an American Indian Policy Institute analysis of federal data, only 67% of tribal lands in the continental United States have access to broadband internet, with the majority having access only to broadband speeds. band considered by the Federal Communications Commission to be less than “minimally acceptable.” “

Meanwhile, less than half of tribal land residents in the continental United States subscribe, largely due to the high costs, according to the analysis.

These numbers are much lower than the percentage of all rural communities in the United States that have access to broadband and broadband operating at minimum acceptable speeds. And since reporting this data to remote areas can be difficult, experts believe the true numbers for tribal nations are even lower.

In the Navajo Nation, where Yazzie and her family live, more than half of the territory’s 110 Navajo communities do not have broadband access.

According to tribal chiefs, 60% of residents have no fixed internet access, and broadband speeds for the communities that do have it are slow, spotty and expensive. According to an analysis by New America, a left-wing political think tank, residents of the Navajo Nation with broadband pay about $ 44 – or 52% – more per month than average prices in the United States, and for slower speeds..

There and elsewhere, the lack of consistent and reliable broadband prevents not only online schooling, but access to everything from essential telehealth appointments to online tax filing, as well as the ability of governments. tribals to function properly and to make announcements, including the most important ones concerning the public. health, safety and emergencies.

“We have a huge connectivity problem. We just don’t have the lines. The reality is that there are widespread plots of absolutely no connectivity, ”said Traci Morris, executive director of the American Indian Policy Institute. “And the families that have the connectivity, it’s not fast enough.”

As the pandemic shattered the digital divide, Morris and other experts have said tribal lands for years have suffered from additional unique circumstances far beyond a lack of funding that made the internet built. broadband particularly difficult.

They include a complex licensing process because hundreds of Native American reservations are sovereign lands; the cost of building broadband infrastructure in sparsely populated areas with rough terrain is not cost effective for private communications companies; and many on-reserve residents still need running water, electricity and a cell phone signal.

Two companies that provide internet in Navajo Nation areas, Choice NTUA Wireless and Frontier Communications, did not respond to questions from NBC News.

Biden’s proposal

Biden’s plan would invest in building high-speed broadband infrastructure that would lead to universal access and adoption for all Americans. The plan “prioritizes” supporting networks owned and operated by local and tribal governments and “providers with less pressure to generate profits and with a commitment to serve entire communities.”

The plan would invest money in infrastructure to be built on tribal lands, including extending fiber optic cables over long distances to remote homes.

The plan also aims to reduce the cost of broadband service – which for many people in tribal lands which are already prohibitively expensive – and to increase internet use.

According to the White House, while individual grants to cover these costs “may be needed in the short term,” the long-term solution to reducing costs may have to come from Congress. “The president is committed to working with Congress to find a solution to lower Internet prices for all Americans, increase adoption in rural and urban areas,” the White House said.

The U.S. Jobs Plan also proposes a $ 5 billion fund called the Rural Partnership Program that would specifically assist rural areas and tribal nations in economic development, which could include additional funding for broad infrastructure. bandaged.

Because the Biden administration remains in negotiations with the Republicans, specific legislation or allowances have not yet been determined.

Experts said the money would increase dramatically from the $ 31 billion Biden’s US bailout earlier this year invested in tribal lands. Previous administrations have also authorized funding for broadband expansion on Native American lands, but in much smaller amounts.

First Lady Jill Biden is greeted by Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and his wife Phefelia Nez as they arrive in Window Rock, Ariz., Navajo Nation on April 22.Mandel Ngan / AP File

“Thirty-one billion are barely scratching the surface of how to get hold of us in cities and states across the United States,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in an interview. “But as a starting point, for more fiber, more towers, more lines in the ground, which is so expensive to do in our communities because of the terrain, it’s great to see.”

“We love the plan and we absolutely need what they promise in Indian country,” said Nez, who pointed out that strong mobilization efforts on his reservation, much of which is in Arizona, have helped. to make the state blue for the first. presidential election since 1996.

“We had a huge turnout. We helped topple the state and the whole election,” he said. “They know the influence we’ve had and they’ve given us a seat at the table.”

“ It would improve our lives ”

Navajo Nation is far from the only reserve where residents would benefit from better, faster, and more accessible broadband access.

In the Valtina Littleshield area of ​​the Cheyenne River Preserve in central South Dakota, there is only one broadband Internet service provider. Connectivity is unreliable and the price is steep, she said.

Every month, Littleshield, 67, who lives with her daughter, her daughter’s husband and their two children, calculates her family’s income to make sure she can foot the bill for internet and phone services.

The cost of connectivity, which allowed children to attend school virtually, has eclipsed $ 300 several times recently. Their connection, provided by the only provider in their area, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Telephone Authority, goes out frequently and is not fast enough to reliably support a brief telehealth visit, Littleshield said. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Telephone Authority did not respond to questions from NBC News.

As a result, Littleshield needs a family member to drive her 40 miles to her doctor in Eagle Butte or, at other times, 130 miles from Rapid City when she needs certain specialists, she says.

The reliable and affordable high-speed internet that the American Jobs Plan could bring to his area “would make a big difference for us,” Littleshield said.

“If they end up being able to do that, it will give our children a better education, it will give our families better and faster options to see a doctor,” she added. “It would improve our lives.”

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