Community-Owned Networks May Bridge Connectivity Gap on Tribal Lands

Native American communities often suffer when it comes to high-speed Internet access. According to the FCC, 41 percent lack Internet speeds that would allow for videoconferencing.

by Sami Edge, The Santa Fe New Mexican / November 13, 2017
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(TNS) –– Lynn Roanhorse launched a skin care line for Native Americans two years ago, after years of research prompted by the toll acne was taking on young people’s self-esteem.

Roanhorse, who works professionally as a federal programs director for the Education Department of the Jicarilla Apache Nation, designed the skin care line, Skindigenous, with natural ingredients, geared specifically toward Natives with sensitive skin. She also aims to help people learn about the dietary and environmental factors that can lead to skin conditions like rosacea and acne.

But, she says, that effort is hindered by a service many small-business owners might take for granted: access to high-speed internet.

Roanhorse doesn’t have internet access at her home in Dulce, a remote town in the Jicarilla Apache Nation in far Northern New Mexico, near the Colorado border. Most people in her corner of the Jicarilla Apache reservation don’t, she said — it’s slow, and expensive.

Roanhorse sells her products at trade shows and is developing a website so people can buy them online, but she feels like she could be doing more on the internet to reach her clients and assist them.

For example, she said, when mothers approach her at trade shows and ask if she can help their children, some so embarrassed about acne that they’re threatening to drop out of school, her first impulse is to get on a plane and fly out to help them. But she can’t travel to everyone.

“If I had internet or videoconferencing … I could help them,” she said. “I probably could be out there, helping people worldwide. But I’m stuck, basically.”

She’s not alone.

According to a 2016 report by the Federal Communications Commission, “many Americans still lack access to advanced, high-quality voice, data, graphics and video offerings, especially in rural areas and on Tribal lands.”

Forty-one percent of Americans living on tribal lands lacked access to internet speeds necessary to do things such as videoconference in 2016, the report said.

New Mexico didn’t get stellar marks for access, either.

According to the report, more than 430,000 people in the state — roughly 20 percent of the overall population and more than half of the state’s rural population, including most of the people living on tribal lands — lacked access to this level of “advanced telecommunications capability,” or good internet service.

Last week, Roanhorse attended the Indigenous Connectivity Summit in Santa Fe, looking for solutions to help her community. Hosted by the international Internet Society and other nonprofits focused on expanding internet access throughout New Mexico and around the globe, the gathering centered on community-run internet systems as a solution to connectivity issues on tribal lands.

“The rural nature of many tribal lands makes that a really noticeable gap in the digital revolution,” said Mark Buell, director of the North American bureau of the Internet Society. “These are the communities that stand to benefit most. You’re talking about high unemployment, low health rates, educational opportunities that simply aren’t available. … It’s ripe for the internet.”

Community networks are essentially a “do-it-yourself” model of internet, built and operated by citizens or community organizations instead of recognizable conglomerates like Comcast or CenturyLink.

The point, said Merridith Ingram, co-founder of the newly minted New Mexico chapter of the Internet Society, is that a community can build an internet system that is “driven by the community, for the community, and built in a way that makes sense for them.”

Laguna Pueblo, west of Albuquerque, got its own community internet up and running in 2014, according to Gilbert Martinez, senior technician for the network, which is called the Kawaika Hanu Internet Service and run through the Pueblo of Laguna Utility Authority.

As internet issues came up, the pueblo government created a telecommunications work group to develop strategies for improving connections. Ultimately, the group won a $3.3 million grant from the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Community Connect program to install a wireless system and get residences, businesses and community centers in the pueblo’s six villages connected to the internet.

Internet access is free to community centers, but the utility authority covers its costs by charging residences between $40 and $60 a month for high-speed internet access.

After the network was set up, the pueblo sent a thank-you presentation to the USDA, full of testimonies about how the new connectivity had affected its residents. Kids can now do their homework at home, the package said, and one community center volunteer who had been unemployed said the internet service helped him get a new job.

“I get a lot of positive feedback from the elderly,” Martinez said. They tell him, “Our grandkids need this if they expect to make it out there in the world. We didn’t have this growing up, but we can see how it will benefit our grandkids.”

More New Mexico communities might soon have an opportunity to harness federal grant funding to develop their own networks, if a group of legislators has its way in Washington. Last week, U.S. Rep Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., and a number of other lawmakers introduced legislation that would authorize $100 million for the Community Connect grant pool that funded the Laguna Pueblo network.

That was exciting news for Roanhorse.

After the summit, she said she hopes to complete a feasibility study for a new internet provider in the Jicarilla Apache Nation and will encourage talks, and possibly solicit funding, for a new kind of community network.

Right now, only people who can afford high bills have access to the internet at their homes on the reservation. And while students in the Dulce Independent Schools have access to a good network — and a brand-new coding class that Roanhorse’s department started just a few weeks ago — truly harnessing the potential of the internet will take more.

With affordable, high-quality internet access in their homes, students who want to launch a career online, without having to leave the reservation, can do that, she said. And artists, entrepreneurs and other business owners like herself could share their offerings, and their legacies, with the world.

Sick people in the community could even connect with top doctors and experts by videoconferencing.

“My interest is the youth, my community,” she said, “and if the internet is going to make everybody’s life a little bit easier, I’m willing to help facilitate it and talk to people.

For people like me who want to help others — to educate, to get our most precious resource, our youth, to be self-sufficient — it’s important to see these opportunities.”

©2017 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.