Bridging the Digital Divide by Ensuring Broadband on Indian Tribal Lands

March 18, 2009 – The digital divide between America’s well-to-do regions and its rural and tribal countryside were on display in the first panel of the federal government’s Tuesday public meeting, in Las Vegas, on spending the broadband stimulus.

News | NTIA-RUS Forum | Day 2, Session 1

March 18, 2009 – The digital divide between America’s well-to-do regions and its rural and tribal countryside were on display in the first panel of the federal government’s Tuesday public meeting, in Las Vegas, on spending the broadband stimulus.

The first of three panel discussions during the joint meeting of the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Agriculture Department’s Rural Utilities Service March 17 focused on the state of “vulnerable populations” within the United States, the need to drive demand for broadband, and the role of strategic institutions.

Jeff Sandstrom of the Nevada Commission on Economic Development said his state had witnessed an unprecedented population explosion in the context of “a large percentage of federally-owned land than any other state in the nation.”

A majority of the rural Nevadas have yet to access broadband, said Sandstrom, even though fiber networks laid down during the “.com” boom of the 1990s had provided that technological hope.

“The debate we are having here is one of access, not shortage or need or applications,” he said.

Finding ways to extend broadband would play a major role in Nevada’s “economic revolution,” Sandstrom said, particularly with the state’s focus on solar and geothermal power.Additionally, Nevada’s wildlife, agriculture, e-learning, telemedicine and business communities would benefit from better broadband, he said.

“The residents of Nevada would have a just access to a quality of life,” he said.

The Nevada Rural Housing Authority’s Gary Longacre decried the disparity of access to broadband between Nevada’s tribal areas and the rest of the country.

“Many of the communities in such contexts are either unserved or underserved,” he said. It is “too expensive to build the last mile.”

But rural and tribal communities still need broadband to access essential services.

Karen Twenhafel of Telecom Consulting Service, representing the National Tribal Telecommunication Association, said the stimulus funding for broadband was “extending an expensive opportunity.”

Eight American tribes, she said, already have their own telephone companies and continue to pursue “self-provision of communication services.”

Others among the Indian tribal lands – at least 29 percent, she said – still do not have access to broadband technology. “For 4.3 million Americans, this type of participation is simply not available.”

Seventy-five years after the passage of the Communications Act of 1934, there is still no formal tracking of telecommunications conditions, she said.

“In spending the broadband stimulus, priority ought to be given to service areas where the penetration rate of those service areas are below 15% or below of the national average of those services,” she said. Tribal lands should be designated as “separate and exclusive service areas.”

“We can no longer have applications that serve surrounding lands, but not the tribal lands,” she said. She also said that tribal governments should be consulted throughout the process.

Valerie Fast Horse, council member and director of information technology for the Coeur d’Alene tribe, continued with panel’s concern for broadband for tribal communities. “The communications of this nation is only as strong as its weakest link.”

She said that tribal and rural areas had been left behind in communication development. What is needed now, she said, is infrastructure “with a long shelf-life” – referring to fiber-optic technology appropriate for delivering broadband into rural communities.

“True communication development cannot happen if we only focus on capitalizing infrastructure and equipment, while ignoring our human spirit,” she said.

Jeff Fontaine, executive director of the Nevada Association of Counties, noted that 1, 200 miles of fiber had already been laid in Nevada, and that it could aid transition into more widespread broadband – and public spending on broadband deployment.

During the public comment session, several panelists agreed upon the need to carry out environmental impact assessments and to development new energy sources, as part of wider broadband deployment.

Also, computer pricing issues might have to be addressed in order to help drive public demand for broadband technology.

A member of the audience warned that inner-city communities must not be neglected in an effort to mitigate rural and tribal needs.

The validity of some U.S. Census Bureau data validity was questioned, too, with Twenhafel saying that “phone penetration data is normally below what is reported in census data.”

Several individuals at the meeting said that wireless technologies were an important component of meeting the needs of rural and tribal areas.

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