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Pandemic Relief Money To Help Narrow Digital Divide On Native American Reservations


The digital divide is stark on reservations where Native Americans live. For those 1 million-plus people, broadband-speed Internet ranges from unaffordable to just plain unavailable. But now federal pandemic relief money is providing an opportunity to significantly narrow the divide. Montana Public Radio's Aaron Bolton reports.

AARON BOLTON, BYLINE: Driving up a rugged gravel road along Pistol Creek on the Flathead Reservation in western Montana, Chuck Reese, an administrator for the tribes here, stops to point out something new.

So this is the tower.

CHUCK REESE: There's four total.

BOLTON: Four total.

On top of a small mountain sits a 180-foot tower. In the coming months, it will help broadcast wireless high-speed Internet over roughly 80% of this mostly rural mountainous reservation.

REESE: To give you an idea, we're bringing fiber optic right in here, too, all the way up this mountain. I mean, this is first-class connectivity.

BOLTON: Nearly half of local residents have no access to high-speed Internet. Reese says this change will allow them to take advantage of online education and telehealth and give tribal police connectivity right in their cars.

REESE: So that they can go to an e-ticketing system and a fully mobile 911 system.

BOLTON: In February, the federal government offered free broadband wireless spectrum to tribes to try to narrow their digital divide - spectrum that it could have auctioned for potentially hundreds of millions of dollars to private companies. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.

JESSICA ROSENWORCEL: That's because it's the kind of mid-band airwaves that the carriers are most interested in now because it has this nice mix of capacity for broadband and propagation, which means it travels long distances.

BOLTON: Initially, not many tribes applied for the free spectrum because...

GEOFF BLACKWELL: To make the equipment on those towers really robust, you need a healthy amount of power to them and strong fiber.

BOLTON: Geoff Blackwell is with Amerind Risk Management, a Native-owned insurance company that helps tribes improve digital access. Within five years, tribes have to pay to build towers and run fiber optic cable and other utilities to actually make these wireless networks a reality. Each project could cost hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars. After Congress passed $8 billion in federal coronavirus relief funding in late March, tribes submitted more than 400 applications for the free wireless spectrum. Blackwell, a member of the Muscogee Nation, says it's an important opportunity.

BLACKWELL: It's important they took this step for broadband purposes but also utilizing a mechanism that recognizes that placing tribal nations themselves in the center of the regulatory process has a chance of significant success.

BOLTON: However, Blackwell says many tribal lands weren't included and that the FCC will need to make more spectrum available to tribes in the future to really shrink the digital divide in Indian country. Back in Montana, Flathead tribe's administrator Chuck Reese says they're on track to begin delivering some broadband by December 31.

REESE: This just furthers the tribe's independence as far as being able to distribute our own network connectivity how we see, you know, necessary.

BOLTON: He says that independence is crucial because it will provide modern-day Internet speeds to residents long neglected by commercial Internet providers. For NPR News, I'm Aaron Bolton, reporting from the Flathead Indian Reservation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aaron is Montana Public Radio's Flathead reporter.