The National Broadband Plan and Indian Country

( – promoted by navajo)

The bird who has eaten cannot fly with the bird that is hungry. –attributed to the Omaha

It can be said, alternately, that the hungry bird cannot fly as far or hunt as successfully as the bird who has already been fed.


(Crossposted at Dailykos)

The larger picture

When it comes to internet broadband connectivity, much of the United States is still a hungry bird. The United States has fallen far behind globally in terms of the number of households who access the internet via broadband. At the start of the Bush administration, the US ranked fourth in broadband access and adoption in households and businesses across the country. As of 2009, US broadband connectivity is now ranked somewhere around 13th to 15th, according to a report published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Another source, Strategy Analytics, estimated broadband at the household level in the US as twentieth in 2008, well behind Scandinavian countries, several Asian nations, and the UK. The company projects that the US will fall to 23rd once figures for 2009 are reported.

There are a multitude of reasons why this country lags behind in broadband and fiber optics development; the reasons are the usual suspects – economic obstacles, policy conflicts, and existing infrastructure. There’s also the ongoing dialogue of whether broadband should be extended only through private industry development or with government funding as an open-access utility, like electricity or water, or a hybrid of financing through both public and private.

For the record, the US is one of the few “developed” countries in the world, and the only industrialized nation, that has yet to adopt a national broadband policy.

The United States is currently the only industrialized nation without a national policy for Internet access. Estonia, Greece, France and Finland have recognized Internet access as a basic human right in accordance with the United Nations recommendation. TechNewsDaily: U.S. Considers ‘Internet Access for All’

A potentially huge sea change in national broadband policy is being presented to Congress on Tuesday, March 16th. Courtesy of The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the FCC will introduce a National Broadband Plan that charts a $25 billion course over the next ten years for greater rural broadband access and increased wireless for police and fire departments.

Additionally, the Plan includes improved initiatives for broadband access for Native American reservations in regions where there is currently little to no broadband or even DSL access via telecommunication landlines.

The micro picture

These new initiatives in the upcoming National Plan are intended to build upon the first FCC Indian Telecom Initiatives established in 2002. Seven years from that first Initiative, broadband adoption rate on Native American reservations is estimated somewhere between a lowly 5% to 10%.

Here are the starved birds.

There are more than 300 tribal reservations in the contiguous United States; in addition, there is one tribal reservation, along with several tribal townships and villages in Alaska.

Many of these reservations float like uncharted islands in the middle of a remote ocean when it comes to 20th and 21st century technologies. The services and the infrastructure, and more to the point, the profit margin for potential corporate and business investment, do not exist. Often, the available satellite and DSL/T1 services that are offered on some reservations are prohibitively expensive (in some areas twice to three times the average urban monthly cable bill). The download and capacity speeds are much slower and less efficient.

There is no tax base for any kind of local or state municipal bond development or levy proposal to establish underlying physical infrastructure, which can complicate seeking grants for matching federal funds. There is little political will on the part of most state level policy makers to work with tribes towards improving access to technology. Not enough voters? Not enough money.

The upper Midwest and Great Plains reservations provide examples where the topography and extensive distances from main broadband hubs and urban areas complicate affordable broadband adoption. Extending phone lines, basic cable lines, fiber-optic cable – even electric service in some areas – to a comparatively small population is rarely financially feasible for private industry providers, large or small. In addition, to bridge connectivity, many reservations must partner effectively with adjacent communities outside the reservations to obtain continuous access to broadband resources and to improve total cost of installation and maintenance.

Such isolation from access to technology impedes every element of an already difficult life on reservations rife with poverty, unemployment, and a tragically underserved and undereducated youth population.

In an address to the National Congress of American Indians in Washington D.C. on March 2,  FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski discussed the need for this access far better than I can paraphrase.

High-speed Internet is not only the Web and

email; it’s a telephone; it’s television; it’s a library; it’s a town hall.

Broadband has the potential to help Tribal communities advance farther, faster, than any new technology in our lifetime.

Broadband is a platform for job creation and economic growth.

Studies from the Brookings Institute, MIT, the World Bank, and others all tell us the same thing — that even modest increases in broadband adoption nationally can yield hundreds of thousands of new jobs, and broadband can generate jobs in Indian Country.

Broadband is a platform for innovation. If you have a high-speed Internet connection, you can dream big, bring those dreams to life, and then bring them to the world.

Broadband also is a platform for solutions to so many of our major challenges: education, health care, energy, public safety, and democratic engagement.

Broadband’s ability to transcend the barriers of distance could be particularly potent for Tribal communities.

With broadband, entrepreneurs on Tribal lands don’t need to move to the cities. They can collaborate, innovate, and create new small businesses and high-value jobs because they have access to robust and open information networks.

With broadband, kids in Tribal schools can have access in their classrooms to the best teachers in the world, and access in their homes to up-to-date e-textbooks and high quality tutoring from energized college and grad students around America.

With broadband, a Native American with diabetes can get dietary counseling on her home computer, a remote diagnosis in a nearby facility, and, if necessary, even surgery aided remotely by specialists at teaching hospitals.

As Genachowski states, there are obstacles in broadening the reach of even basic technology on many remote reservations.

One of the main statistics I often cite when talking about the need for a National Broadband Plan is that ONLY 65 percent of Americans have broadband in the home.

In Indian Country, 65 percent is roughly the adoption rate for TELEPHONE service. That’s unacceptable.

The high unemployment, extreme poverty, and alarming mental and physical health conditions on many reservations, such as the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, are amplified not only by lack of access, but by the ability to pay for it.  The Chairman, to his credit, doesn’t avoid addressing this economic divide.

Where broadband is available, in general we’ve found that a major barrier to broadband adoption is affordability. With crippling poverty on Tribal lands, that’s going to be an even bigger obstacle in Indian Country.

Put simply, bringing faster, affordable broadband service to people in Monument Valley is a lot harder than bringing it to people in Silicon Valley. I get that.

Not surprisingly, there are echoes of the New Deal in the debate over increasing broadband access in both rural areas and on reservations through government funding as part of our nation’s crucial infrastructure improvement.

The dispute over municipal broadband bears a striking similarity to the development of the electric power industry a century ago. As James Baller-an attorney who represents local governments and public utilities-first warned in a 1994 paper written for the American Public Power Association: “The history of the electric power industry casts substantial doubt on the notion that our nation can depend on competition among cable and telephone companies alone… to ensure not only prompt and affordable, but also universal, access to the benefits of the information superhighway.”


In 1935, he (Roosevelt) created the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), which gave loans and other help to small towns and farmer cooperatives interested in setting up their own power systems. The REA turned out to be one of the New Deal’s most successful programs. Within two years, hundreds of new municipal power utilities were up and running across the country, and within 20 years, virtually all of rural America had electricity, provided either by rural co-ops or big utilities spurred to action by municipal competition. Baller  concluded: “The plain, hard truth is that universal electric service would never have developed on a timely basis in the absence of municipally owned electric utilities and rural electric cooperatives”-which still account for more than a quarter of the power in the country today.

Let There Be WiFi

It’s likely that the FCC has a major struggle ahead over the allocation and specific application of both licenses and federal monies, both with Congress and the many powerful special interests in the telecommunications and broadband industries.

One of the proposals in the upcoming National Broadband Plan outlines re-allocating at least a portion of the over $8 Billion Universal Service Fund towards broadband promotion and internet access as a necessary service, much like telephone access was formalized in the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Genachowski hinted at the possibility of increasing broadband infrastructure and programs on tribal lands by using a portion of this Fund.

There will be fireworks in Congress over the contents of this Plan. It is essential that in the upcoming debate, residents of tribal reservations are not left starving for access and resources once again.

All dreams spin out from the same web. –Hopi

Reference Links

FCC webcasts

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.