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California Tribe, AT&T Break Ground on Fiber Network Project

The San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians and AT&T held a groundbreaking ceremony this week for a project that will expand access to high-speed Internet service to more than 500 new customers in Valley Center, Calif.

(TNS) — A North County tribe and AT&T held a groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday to expand access to reliable, high-speed Internet service to more than 500 new customers in Valley Center.

The new AT&T Fiber Internet connection is now under construction at the San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians reservation and expected to go live in January or February, said Tedi Vriheas, AT&T California vice president of external affairs.

Vriheas said that most reservations have copper networks, an older technology that provides much slower Internet speeds. Fiber networks, by contrast, are faster than the copper network and more reliable than WiFi and cellular service, which can experience frequent disruptions due to the mountainous terrain and remote locations of many rural reservations.

"A lot of the reservations are remote, and the topography has valleys, hills and mountains," Vriheas said. "It's very hard to connect, and it's hard to get a clear wireless signal that is consistent."

The new fiber network is part of a continuing effort across the nation to bring high speed Internet service to rural communities, including tribal nations.

Although inadequate Internet access in rural and tribal communities had been an issue for years, the communication disparity became even more exacerbated during the pandemic as many people started working and going to school from home.

In 2019, the Federal Communications Commission reported that only 65 percent of those living on rural, tribal lands had access to broadband Internet, compared to 99 percent of housing units in urban areas of the country.

San Pasqual Chairman Stephen Cope said that while slow Internet speeds had been an issue on the reservation for years, the pandemic shined a spotlight on the problem. Building a more reliable Internet network is an important piece of encouraging community members to move back to the reservation, a trend Cope said he has observed in recent years.

"Our reservation keeps growing — we have a number of tribal members that are coming back to the reservation, coming back home, in a sense, and our goal is to build for generations to come," Cope said.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs reports that barriers to high speed Internet access among Indigenous communities include a lack of coordination, low adoption rate and insufficient funding for infrastructure projects.

The Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program — a $3 billion federal effort to support tribal broadband projects — received more than 280 applications by its initial deadline two years ago. Last week, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration awarded $3.5 million to seven tribal groups, bringing the total awarded funds up to $1.79 billion granted to 198 tribal entities.

Thus far, five tribes in San Diego County have received nearly $3.7 million in funding through the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program. In East County, the list includes the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians and the Ewiiaapaayp Band of Kumeyaay Indians, and the La Jolla Band of Luiseno Indians, Pauma Band of Luiseno Indians and Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians in North County.

In July, the federal government announced a second round of funding to expand high-speed Internet access to tribal communities

The collaboration with San Pasqual is not the first time AT&T has partnered with a tribal government in San Diego County.

Last year, the company worked with Rincon to bring high-speed, broadband Internet service to more than 400 homes on its reservation. Vriheas said AT&T is also working on projects with the Barona Band of Mission Indians and La Jolla.

©2023 The San Diego Union-Tribune, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.