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New online world
ahead for
Indian reservations

 

by Kristena Hansen

March 06, 2011, Arizona Republic News

Residents of four Native American reservations in Arizona, including those in areas so remote that they lack running water or electricity, are about to get cutting-edge Internet access.

More than $33.6 million in federal stimulus funds will be spent to lay a few hundred miles of fiber-optic cable and install wireless towers, delivering high-speed Internet to the front doors of roughly 5,000 homes, small businesses and other facilities. The new connections, in areas that formerly had no Internet access or only sluggish dial-up service, may cost thousands of dollars per household. But they could transform some of the state’s poorest areas. The Broadband service will offer a chance for better education and business opportunities, as well as forge closer connections between residents and the outside world.

The program has echoes of the Depression-era Tennessee Valley Authority, which brought electric power to a major swath of the southeastern United States and helped revitalize an impoverished region.

The federal government’s goal is for homes, businesses, police and fire departments, schools and hospitals on the Tohono O’odham, San Carlos, Hopi and Havasupai reservations to have Internet access comparable to what urban dwellers enjoy, in areas that private-sector companies decided were too unprofitable to serve.

Project managers hope to break ground later this year.

The technological leap will be huge in areas that lack the most basic modern conveniences, let alone a landline telephone.

More traditional residents worry about the effects of always-accessible Internet on tribal ways.

Affordability also is an issue. Few reservation residents have computers or laptops. Even supporters of the effort say the cost of Broadband service, which runs about $45 per month, is expected to be out of reach for many.

Because of cultural issues and economic hardships, project managers expect limited participation at first. They believe it could be years before the full impact of the Broadband push is known.

The ultimate goal is creating opportunity on Native American reservations, according to Jonathan Adelstein, national administrator of the federal Rural Utilities Service, which is responsible for project oversight.

“If their children want to stay where they grew up and maintain their culture and their heritage, they need opportunities to make a good living, good wages,” Adelstein said. “They need access to the world.”

Although widespread poverty makes it likely that the Broadband stimulus funds will show little to no financial return in the near future, supporters say success of these projects on tribal lands shouldn’t be measured by dollars and cents.

“The success may be on a secondary or tertiary level,” said Carl Artman, professor and director of the Economic Development in Indian Country program at Arizona State University.

If Broadband adoption is encouraged today, over time, the impact will increase college enrollment and completion, improve the quality and efficiency of health care and strengthen the business economy on reservations, which would attract outside companies needed for a competitive, healthy market. Ultimately, it could make tribes less dependent on the federal government, he said.

“If you don’t make this investment now, you’re going to be paying more in the future,” he said. “This is fiscally responsible.”

The ‘digital divide’
The recent explosion of high-speed-Internet use has transformed commerce, education, political movements and connectedness around the world. Broadband use in American households rose to 67 percent in 2009 from 9 percent in 2001, according to a November report by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

However, significant Broadband adoption gaps between urban and rural areas, which have dial-up or nothing at all, persisted, the report said. Lack of availability, affordability and access to a computer were among the primary reasons.

In an effort to close this “digital divide,” President Barack Obama allotted $7.2 billion to bring Broadband to rural areas and Indian country as part of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009.

Artman said the areas would not be served otherwise.

“There isn’t a payoff for a telecom company to enter into a tribal land,” he said. “They need to put in too much infrastructure for a population they don’t know how to serve.”

Tribally owned telecommunications companies were selected for the infrastructure projects. The work will be funded by a combination of federal grants and loans.

Broadband stimulus money was divided into two programs:

-$4.7 billion for the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, or BTOP, which funded “Middle Mile” projects through grants that build infrastructure for impoverished areas, connect community anchor facilities, establish or upgrade public computer labs and provide digital literacy education for the adoption and sustainability of Broadband.

Many of Arizona’s BTOP grants were part of multistate projects, such as $32.19 million to the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority to lay 550 miles of fiber-optic cable and build 59 microwave towers in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.

-$2.5 billion for the Broadband Initiatives Program, which gave loans and grants to projects that included a “Last Mile” component that makes Broadband available to rural homes and businesses.

A combined $40.8 million was awarded to five telecommunications companies in rural Arizona to carry out six projects, four of which focus on tribal lands.

The state’s biggest award in this category is $17.4 million in grants and loans to the Tohono O’odham Utility Authority. It will provide service to nearly 3,000 households that either have no access or only dial-up. More than $10.4 million will go to the San Carlos Apache Telecommunications Utility Inc. to serve up to 1,200 homes.

Hopi Telecommunications Inc. plans to spend its $3.6 million award to build a 61-mile fiber-optic cable from Holbrook to Jeddito, which is an enclave of the Navajo Reservation within the Hopi Reservation. The company will use two wireless towers to extend Broadband and fixed-wireless telephone service to all 400 homes in Jeddito and the nearby community of Spider Mound that have no Broadband or landline telephone access.

Last week, Adelstein visited the Havasupai Reservation to announce J.C. Cullen Inc.’s $2.2 million project that will extend cellphone and Internet service to the Bar Four area and Supai village in Grand Canyon National Park.

‘Their best opportunity’
Internet access has been so limited in many tribal areas that it’s hard to contemplate what the sudden connectedness will mean and how quickly it will take hold, observers say.

Lucinda Hughes-Juan, a member of the Tohono O’odham tribe, has been a business instructor at the community college in the tribal headquarters of Sells for the past few years.

Although the tribe has been slow to adopt the Internet, more Broadband access could increase college enrollment, she said. By having access to online classes, lack of transportation would no longer be an impediment to obtaining higher education.

“That’s their best opportunity as they’re trying to learn, and eventually they can go into business in e-commerce or somehow engage the Internet to help them,” she said.

On many reservations, children and teenagers don’t have the computer access that many of their urban and suburban peers take for granted.

Hughes-Juan said because the reservation has been so technologically behind, it’s been a challenge teaching her older students how to use computers and the Internet for educational and vocational purposes.

Robyn Kayquoptewa, 18, didn’t get her first laptop until her freshman year at Northern Arizona University, where she is majoring in elementary education. She grew up in a small village on the Hopi Reservation where only solar electricity is allowed and some only have water by hauling it from a nearby pump. Outside communication is possible only through spotty cellphone service.

“The village has chosen not to because they feel it’s better for people to not disrespect the land,” she said.

Nizhoni Marks, 28, lives in Phoenix and grew up in Jeddito. Some people do have laptops or computers, though they can’t log onto the Internet there. But most still don’t have running water.

She said that Broadband adoption there would be embraced eventually but that older generations will be the hardest to convince.

“A lot of them don’t know anything about the Internet or have even used the computer,” Marks said. “I think over time it would be utilized more and more by the community members.”

Some tribal utilities contract with telecommunications companies to provide affordable cellphone coverage, but the network is insufficient to support Broadband Internet.

Just because tribal members may not have had access to Broadband service in their homes, or the financial means to pay for it, it doesn’t mean their hunger for technology is any less than urban dwellers. A survey released last year by Native Public Media found that when given access, Native Americans use the Internet at greater rates than the national norms.

Verlon Jose, chairman of the Tohono O’odham Tribe, said he faced major resistance in 2006 when he suggested the tribal council members get smartphones.

“Today, you can’t pry the council away from their BlackBerrys,” he said. “We have to adapt to the times.”

Tohono O’odham access
The Tohono O’odham Utility Authority, a tribal enterprise that also provides the reservation’s electricity and water, intends to use its $17.4 million award to lay 150 miles of fiber throughout the reservation and build wireless towers as needed to extend service to scattered homes.

Residents near Sells, the tribal headquarters, will be among the first to be hooked up.

By the project’s completion, at least 100 new jobs should be created and every single home on the reservation will have Broadband access, said Charles Wiese, the authority’s general manager.

But having access and subscribing to the service are two different things, tribal telecommunications executives agree.

“We’re going to have to try to create our own demand,” Wiese said. “I’m just having nightmares of the thought of providing all this fiber to these homes and nobody uses it.”

The authority now offers DSL, the slow digital service, to homes and some businesses around Sells. More-remote communities have access to dial-up, but only a small portion of households subscribe. Fewer than 30 percent of Tohono O’odham households have either DSL or dial-up Internet. About 62 percent have telephone service.

Even if all 2,918 households counted in the 2000 U.S. census and roughly 50 business facilities buy Broadband subscriptions, the project cost works out to more than $5,800 per building.

Wiese said he expects to add 800 new residential subscriptions to the current 440 DSL customers by the time the project is complete. He said the take-up rate will be slow because most don’t own a personal computer or laptop, or have the means to buy one, and a $45 monthly Internet bill is pricey for an impoverished area.

Census figures indicate the reservation’s median household income was $19,970.

“What we’re doing with this stimulus I don’t think will be very profitable for a while,” Wiese said.

However, he said the project was absolutely necessary because of the better quality of life the Internet can bring. If it weren’t for the award, he said, he would have found other means for the project.

“Our decision making is not to maximize profits,” Wiese said. “It’s to maximize benefits out here.”

Adelstein of the Rural Utilities Service said adoption rates will vary among the projects.

“For people who’ve never had Broadband before, you might see a greater take rate,” Adelstein said. “But there are some cultural traditions that may never want it.”

San Carlos, Hopi
The number of initial customers is a concern on other reservations, as well.

The San Carlos Apache Telecommunications Utility Inc. will use its $10.4 million stimulus award to put up wireless towers in the rugged, mountainous terrain of the northern part of the reservation. Four towers will serve 100 homes and connect 50 public safety officials currently without Broadband or basic telephone service.

“When you get a forest fire, you have to bring in a mobile unit or use satellite phones, which are expensive,” said Gary Uhles, operations manager for the San Carlos telecommunications utility. The project not only will enable communication but increase efficiency when responding to emergencies, he said.

The project also will provide fiber-optic cable to a new hospital expected to be completed by early next year and to about 600 new homes that will soon be built near the town of Bylas. It will also reach about 400 additional scattered homes on the reservation.

Many tribal customers depend on financial assistance for their telephone service from the federal Enhanced Lifeline and Link-up Assistance program, which offers qualified participants living on reservations up to 50 percent discounts on installation costs and lowers monthly bills to $1.

The program is a component of the Federal Communications Commission’s Universal Service Fund, which offers incentives and discounts to telecommunications companies that have areas where it is costly to provide service. The discounts do not currently extend to Broadband.

Ninety percent of the utility’s current telephone subscribers participate in the Enhanced Lifeline and Link-up Assistance program.

Of about 2,400 homes in its service area, only 550 subscribe to DSL. Uhles said the project’s success could heavily depend on whether the assistance program is expanded to Broadband.

In northern Arizona, the challenge is the same.

Besides bringing access to Jeddito and Spider Mound, the Hopi Telecommunications Inc. project also will improve DSL capacity and speed it currently offers to all 22 government and business facilities and about 2,000 households on the reservation. That brings the total cost per building to roughly $1,506.

“We hope we’ll make it available to everyone, but in reality it probably won’t end up that way,” said Darlene Burden, a controller for HTI. “No one knows how many of those people can actually afford Broadband. That component wasn’t even considered in the stimulus.”

Burden said a large majority of their existing telephone customers depend on federal financial assistance for the service.

Creating potential
In weighing the potential effectiveness of all the miles of cable, affordability and access go hand in hand. The more affordable Broadband can be, the greater its educational and economic impact.

The National Broadband Plan, which the FCC developed in 2009 at the request of Congress, recommends reforming the Universal Service Fund by extending it to Broadband.

Regardless of the small numbers, proponents of the stimulus Broadband initiative say that a group of people can’t be left behind, furthering the digital divide. Over time, they believe, reservations will come around to higher Broadband adoption rates.

“If you don’t have access to high-speed Internet in today’s economy, you don’t have access to all the employment and educational opportunities it provides,” said Angela Simpson, senior policy adviser for the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

“You increasingly need online access and skills to apply for and get a good job. Businesses need Broadband to compete in the global economy, and in turn, communities need Broadband infrastructure to attract and retain businesses.”

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