Broadband: Expanding the Digital Road in Indian Country

For decades, quality access to the internet has been important for businesses, schools, and communities. However, the global pandemic has made apparent the stark difference in access -particularly in Indian Country. Broadband is a digital road, and like most roads, they take us to places like work, school, the doctor, and stores. They also bring important goods and services into a community. The past year has dramatically increased our reliance on these digital roads. However, for Indian Country, barriers exist, and much of Indian Country has lacked the funding for broadband infrastructure. These challenging times brought a push and opportunity for funding which will be critical for Indian Country to build for the future.

First, it is essential to understand what broadband means. The term broadband refers to high-speed internet access that is always on and faster than traditional dial-up access. A recent national survey by HighSpeedInternet.com showed the net result of Montana on average having the slowest internet of all states, with roughly half the speed of the national average. Broadband access depends on many factors, including whether you live in a rural or urban community. Rural areas, especially tribal lands, lack broadband coverage the most.

Tribal lands often present significant obstacles to implement broadband and are expensive to serve. These challenges on tribal lands include rugged terrain, complex permitting processes, jurisdictional issues involving states and sovereign tribal governments, lack of the necessary infrastructure, and a majority of residential rather than business customers. Higher population density and more business customers incentivize broadband providers to invest in urban communities where they will receive more returns versus spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to serve a few customers in a rural area. With 84% of tribal citizens living in rural and small-town areas of Montana, these populations are more directly impacted by inadequate speeds and access to broadband coverage.

Fortunately, there is some hopeful news.

The federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) brought significant funding to Montana. The legislature set up interim committees to appropriate more than $2 billion in federal funding through HB 632 and designating $275 million of that funding for broadband-related projects. The funding from HB 632 will work through SB 297, creating a grant program to award broadband providers with funding to deploy broadband projects in frontier, unserved, or underserved areas. Tribal and local governments may partner with broadband providers to fund these projects.

Previously, in February 2020, the Federal Communications Commission opened a six-month period in which federally recognized tribal nations or Alaska Native Villages could apply for a broadband license to provide broadband service on tribal land. In Montana, seven out of eight tribal governments received a license. Previously tribal nations had to compete against giant internet service providers with vastly larger capital and staff with technical skills in bidding for the license.  Tribal governments can lease these licenses. However, having their own license and managing their own infrastructure will mean adding high-skilled, high-paying jobs in their communities. Tribal nation’s autonomy over spectrum licensing strengthens tribal sovereignty by increasing the authority of tribal nations to manage their internet just as they would a natural resource, like water or mineral rights. While tribal governments expect to receive these licenses and some federal funding, it is still only a fraction of what is needed to cover all the costs. That is why state funding from SB 297 is a critical component to make this plan a reality.  

Broadband is an essential part of infrastructure interconnecting all other industries. Every industry relies on computing, cloud storage, or other digital equipment to sell goods and services. In a pandemic that is disproportionately impacting Indian Country, accessing the internet has become increasingly vital for maintaining and improving essential things like physical and mental health outcomes, employment rates, school enrollments, and social connections. The necessity for broadband is overwhelmingly clear as we continue onto this road into the future —a road towards investment, equity, and development in Indian Country.

Check out the MT broadband deployment task proposal here.

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