Building Indigenous Future Zones: Four Tribal Broadband Case Studies

H. Trostle

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The rate of connectivity in Indian Country lags behind the rest of the country. As of December 2018, only 60% percent of Tribal lands in the lower 48 states had high-speed Internet accessA new case study report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance delves into the experiences of four Native Nations — the Coeur d’Alene, the Nez Perce, the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe, and the St. Regis Mohawk — as they constructed their own Internet service providers. 

The case studies examine the unique challenges Native Nations confront as they seek to build Internet infrastructure and address the digital divide while also retaining the tribal sovereignty that is essential to their identity and heritage. As the report states, “Native Nations are sovereign over their data, and have the obligation to protect that information and use it for the betterment of tribal citizens.” 

Each section of the report contains key takeaways that other tribes could use and learn from. The report also pulls these individual case studies together for comprehensive key lessons that Native Nations, lending institutions, and the federal government can use to improve the process for implementing tribal ISP’s, which include:

  • Improving Access to Capital. Native Nations do not have the same access to capital as municipalities or as private Internet service providers. Due to that fact, lending institutions should address their processes for lending to Native Nations to determine how to better support network projects, and the federal government should regularly evaluate funding opportunities for network projects by Native Nations.
  • Avoiding Single-Purpose Funding. Federal funding is often limited to a single purpose, such as connecting Indian Health Services facilities or schools & libraries, which tends to create Internet “silos” rather than broad access.
  • Recognizing the Preparation Needed to Take Advantage of Opportunities. Native Nations that have already started projects or have plans to start projects can easily jump on new funding opportunities if they have a core team of network professionals ready and waiting for the next funding opportunity.
  • Respecting Native Nations’ Right to Spectrum. The FCC should not lease licenses to spectrum over any Native Nations to non-native entities. Spectrum should be treated as a natural resource, and the FCC should recognize Native Nations’ autonomy in determining how to use spectrum for Internet access.
  • Recognizing the Important Role of Tribal Employment Rights Offices. The Tribal Employment Rights Offices provide a value often overlooked by lending institutions or the federal government by making sure that training and hiring is done locally and that the community is benefiting from the new job opportunities that a network project brings.

H. Trostle, author of the report, said, “Besides the vital role Internet infrastructure plays in areas like healthcare and education, we must recognize how technologies like broadband can support Tribal sovereignty by keeping control within the community. Any proposed solution for closing the digital divide on Tribal lands should focus on benefiting Native Nations through local economic development and greater self-determination. This report details what those solutions can look like.”

Download Building Indigenous Future Zones: Four Tribal Broadband Case Studies here [pdf].

Related: Check out our tribal network resource page for a comprehensive list of tribally-owned broadband projects here.