image: Ruslana Iurchenko

Schooling, doctor's appointments, distribution of federal benefits, and even our everyday conversations—all rest on an assumption that everyone has access to a reliable internet connection. But that assumption ignores the reality of more than 77 million people in the United States today, a disproportionate percentage of whom are Black, Latinx, and Native American. It’s not particularly difficult to imagine, however, given a 500 year history of injustices committed against the Indigenous on this continent, that almost half of those residing on tribal lands and American Indian reservations live and work without a computer or home internet access, and have also been deprived of other basic pieces of infrastructure like running water, indoor plumbing, and healthcare. As we surpass a year of lockdown and social distancing, much of everyday life—jobs, bills, taxes, medicine, news, and family reunions—continues to exist almost exclusively online. Getting tribal lands connected, therefore, is imperative to the work advocates need to devote to overhauling the systems of power, capital, and racism that have excluded Indigenous peoples from essential resources.

As the Open Technology Institute (OTI) was preparing to launch our Cost of Connectivity report, revealing a nationwide broadband-affordability crisis, tribal nations ranked in the top five of COVID-19 infection rates across the country. One in every 475 Native Americans has died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, compared with one in every 825 white Americans and one in every 645 Black Americans. In other words, American Indians and Alaskan Natives are dying at almost twice the rate of white Americans. At a House committee hearing in July, representatives from the Chickasaw Nation, Navajo Nation, Southern Ute Indian Tribe, and the National Congress of American Indians testified that as the pandemic was decimating their members and families, they had been organizing their own COVID-19 testing and ordering their own medical equipment while the federal government offered minimal support.

On top of the imminent threat to their health, witnesses at the hearing emphasized the urgent need for federal funding and support of tribal broadband networks and infrastructure for education, telehealth, and economic opportunities. Christine Sage, chairman of the Southern Ute Indian Tribal Council, highlighted the challenges Indigenous communities were facing without broadband access, “Our students are unable to participate in distance learning and our elders are unable to connect with a health care provider virtually. For tribal economies to thrive we need Congress to invest in tribal broadband infrastructure.”

Recognizing the unique challenges tribal nations face from a history of injustices, OTI pivoted to expose the acute lack of broadband on tribal lands, examining the availability, pricing, and speed of internet service plans advertised in the Navajo Nation. Using our Cost of Connectivity methodology, we found the average advertised monthly, non-promotional price for service to be $127.51. We think of rural areas in West Virginia as experiencing some of the worst internet service in the country, but even they have faster and cheaper internet than those on tribal lands. Slow doesn’t even begin to describe it. Only four chapters in Navajo Nation have access to plans that meet the Federal Communications Commission’s definition of broadband, with only one of those plans advertised at below $50 per month. Most condemning, not only is service on tribal lands unaffordable and substandard, our research supported the Government Accountability Office’s findings that the FCC overstates broadband access on tribal lands; none of the current FCC data on broadband in the Navajo Nation could be verified by publicly available sources.

All of this confirmed that tribal communities weren’t on the wrong side of the digital divide, but “at the bottom of a digital chasm,” in the words of Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez. Despite lack of federal support, tribes have been working hard to bring their members online. The Yurok Tribe, for instance, has built its own wireless network to serve members living along the northern California coastline, where private internet service providers have been hesitant to build infrastructure due to the rural and rugged terrain. The Chickasaw Nation, meanwhile, has thus far self-funded the construction of a 500-mile fiber network that has cost them $26 million dollars, but will serve not only 15,000 Chickasaw citizens, but also up to 100,000 non-Chickasaw residents. These networks need further support from the federal government to extend opportunities for telemedicine, distance learning, public safety, emergency operations, and communications to those living on tribal lands.

There is no need to imagine the solutions to this digital chasm—tribal governments, members, and advocates have been building them for years. The U.S. government must pay attention, pay up, and keep their promises to Native American communities. The government must allocate funding from existing federal streams dedicated for infrastructure buildout to fully fund broadband access construction projects and fixed broadband wireless solutions, streamline rules and regulations to allow for fast deployment of towers and communications equipment on tribal lands, incentivize private providers to improve or build infrastructure on tribal lands, and formalize Native input on broadband data collection processes and network deployment. While it might be difficult for anyone reading this article online to imagine a world without the internet, we can certainly reimagine an internet that includes everyone, regardless of who they are or where they live.