Closing the U.S. Indigenous Internet Gap is Essential

The Federal Communications Commission’s 2018 Broadband Deployment Report alleges that 35 percent of Americans living on U.S. tribal lands in 2016 lacked access to adequate broadband service. The U.S. Government Accountability Office released its own report in September 2018 disputing this number and alleging it to be potentially far higher. In today’s society when digital access is essential to a safe and successful life, this is especially alarming.

140 people across North America gathered this past October at the Internet Society’s Indigenous Connectivity Summit in Inuvik, Canada, to collaborate on this troubling issue and ensure more of North America’s underserved communities are equipped with today’s 21st century digital tools. The summit demonstrated the value in bringing together people from different areas who are all united in the same goal: namely to ensure everyone, everywhere has access to the opportunities that the internet offers.

Even though the summit’s attendees all share the same end goal, different problems characterize our collective experiences within our work. The Indigenous Connectivity Summit provided the ideal forum for discussing best strategies for overcoming these issues and filling in the connectivity gaps that persist in our communities.

One practice that has shown encouraging success in deploying internet to underserved areas is community networks. Community networks are communications infrastructure built, managed and used by the people who rely on them. It’s a solution that develops local cooperation while offering autonomy and economic development. With community networks, tribes have the ability to offer internet connectivity on their own preferred cultural terms.

A perfect example of a community network in action is the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association Tribal Digital Village, a program that created the TDV Network in 2001 to bring Internet services to key community buildings and programs in rural and urban San Diego. The program to date has resulted in more than 650 miles of point-to-point and point-to-multi-point links supporting 105 tribal buildings in the area including tribal administration buildings, EPA departments, fire stations, law enforcement, utilities departments, and Libraries, Schools and Head Start programs. TDVNet is expanding to the tribal homes, currently serving 350 homes out of 2400.

While community networks can make a difference, the government also has a role to play – even if it does not hold all the answers to the challenges of indigenous connectivity. A significant step forward in Canada for instance was its recent program called “Connecting Canadians” that extends broadband to remote communities through a $500 million commitment. In addition, the government’s telecommunications body in late September announced a broadband fund of $750 million over five years.

Another important step is fostering dialogue and collaboration with indigenous communities themselves. We must come together directly with those experiencing these shortcomings and hear about their experiences and viewpoints on what remedies can be taken to close the digital gap. This is especially true with indigenous youth who continue to demonstrate a magnetic energy in moving the ball forward on solutions that will better their communities. At the Indigenous Connectivity Summit, we were able to pair successful network experts and mentors with these indigenous leaders of tomorrow to ensure needed dialogue.

Applying a carbon copy of what works in one country to another will not automatically translate into success. With tremendously different tribes, terrains, and other circumstances, each indigenous community will have its own unique set of hurdles to overcome. Efforts by Canadian officials to get all citizens online is something other countries should emulate.

Attending the Indigenous Connectivity Summit was an important reminder that improving access to the internet in more traditionally removed and underserved communities is not a country-specific issue; it is a global one. Conversation is the first step, followed by action. In the case of bringing digital connectivity to America’s tribal lands, empowering the establishment of community networks will be a critical undertaking. With this and other creative solutions, we can move closer to a digital future that puts all people first.

Matt Rantanen is the director of technology at the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association.

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