According to the latest data from the FCC, more than two-thirds of people living in rural tribal lands currently lack access to decent Internet, nearly 30 percentage points higher than the rate for the rest of rural America. So what is it about these tribal lands that makes connecting so difficult?
A new report [PDF] from the Government Accountability Office sheds some light on the particular challenges and roadblocks to bringing reliable and speedy Internet access to tribal lands.
People, regardless of where they live, now need access to the Internet almost as much as they need other vital infrastructure like roads and telephone service. If it can reach rural communities, broadband can be a boon to commerce, education, and health care. But the areas of the country that would most benefit from these resources has the most difficult time getting access to them.
So let’s look at the biggest impediments to getting broadband on tribal land.
1. Location & TerrainImage courtesy of GAO
While some tribal communities are located near urban areas, many are not just rural, but situated on terrain that can make it difficult and/or costly to connect users. The above photo — taken from the GAO report — shows how tribal residents in Beaver, Alaska, have had to rely on slow, heavily restricted satellite Internet for their community.
A 2012 report [PDF] from the FCC’s Office of Native Affairs and Policy, notes that “Reservations of many Tribal Nations are located in rural areas with challenging terrain.” The FCC cites the badlands of the northern plains states and the mountainous forests of the Pacific Northwest as particularly challenging situations.
While mountains and uneven terrain might make it difficult to run cable and fiber lines, tall, thick forests can stymie efforts to bring wireless broadband to tribal communities. GAO researchers spoke to officials with the Lac du Flambeau and Menominee tribes in Wisconsin, where you’d need to build microwave towers as tall as 250 feet just to make sure the signal isn’t broken up by the tree canopy.
Tribal lands can also be sparsely populated, even relative to other rural communities. For example, the Navajo Nation, which sprawls out over parts of three states, is larger in area than 10 states, but has a population of only around 175,000, meaning that only Alaska has a lower population density.
The GAO also points out that some properties on certain tribal lands lack traditional things like roads or addresses, adding more complexity to the issue of delivering an Internet connection.
2. MoneyImage courtesy of Eric Gjerde
Unemployment and poverty can be significantly higher on tribal lands than elsewhere in America. Fifteen of the 21 tribes surveyed by the GAO have poverty rates that exceed the national average (15.5%). Many of these communities have poverty rates well above 30%.
The lack of affluence makes these communities less attractive to broadband providers. Likewise, individual residents’ lack of funds leads them to exclude home Internet from their budgets.
“For the Pueblo of Laguna, tribal officials reported that residents often choose mobile Internet options because they cannot afford separate phone and Internet service,” reads the GAO report. “Officials from the Confederated Tribes of Salish and Kootenai said that when tribal households can afford Internet, they can afford only the slowest download speeds available.”
Because most major broadband providers don’t need to take the risk of building out a network in remote communities where a large portion of the population might only be able to afford the least-expensive service tier, tribes say they are left dealing with smaller providers that they believe are charging them more than if there were more available options.
Additionally, some of these providers have strict data caps, meaning customers will pay overage fees for using the service more than sparingly. The tribal officials also claim that some providers have strict policies of cutting off service for anyone with an outstanding bill.
Some providers acknowledged to the GAO that they have non-payment issues with service to tribal communities.
“One provider said that the customers it serves on tribal lands had non-payment rates double that of other customer groups, and that these rates often follow seasonal employment patterns,” reads the report, adding that these financial problems give providers reasons to avoid investing more in these areas.
3. Lack Of ExpertiseImage courtesy of Ken Fager
An understanding the technical and regulatory issues involved in broadband deployment is necessary to make sure your community is getting the best deal on the best available service. But several of the tribal officials interviewed by the GAO say that their communities lack experience in navigating these complicated bureaucracies.
This is particularly pronounced when it comes to applying for federal funding. Tribes report having to repeatedly file the same paperwork, or having to hire full-time grant writers or outside consultants, lawyers, and engineers to deal with the reams of red tape and tech issues.
“Lack of technical expertise also affects tribes’ ability to interact with private-sector Internet providers,” explains the GAO report. Officials with two tribes say that when they’ve met with private providers, they didn’t fully understand what these companies were proposing and were thus unsure of whether they were getting service that served their communities’ best interests.
A number of tribes have built their own networks to provide service to area residents, but they say it was difficult because so few people involved had the requisite knowledge.
4. BureaucracyImage courtesy of Freaktography
Both the FCC and the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture independently run several programs intended to aid tribal communities in broadband deployment and to better exploit its use. But the GAO report concludes that the two agencies are failing to coordinate their respective programs in a way that would be more efficient.
For example, the FCC has the Healthcare Connect Fund, which is used to ensure that eligible rural healthcare providers have access to high-speed Internet. Tribal communities don’t receive direct support from this fund, but it can be tapped by providers that offer service on tribal lands.
Meanwhile, the USDA runs its Distance Learning and Telemedicine program to provide grants to rural communities to acquire technologies that use the Internet to link them to educational and medical professionals. Like the Healthcare Connect Fund, it can be used to benefit tribal healthcare facilities, but the GAO says the two agencies have not always coordinated on how to best use these interrelated programs to “ensure efficient use of resources and effective programs.”
“Agencies can enhance and sustain their coordinated efforts by… establishing compatible policies and procedures through official agreements,” reads the report. “Agencies can also develop means to operate across agency boundaries, including leveraging resources across agencies for joint activities such as training and outreach.”
The paper calls out the two agencies for failing to coordinate outreach and training efforts when they involve related programs promoting Internet access.
“This could result in an inefficient use of limited federal resources and missed opportunities for resource leveraging between the two agencies and cost-savings to the tribes attending training events,” suggests the GAO.