National Transformation To distance learning last year many students were left stuck in a ‘homework gap’, unable to attend class online because they lack access to the internet. The gap was particularly wide in rural areas, and perhaps even wider for indigenous peoples in tribal lands and reservations, who were left to face a homework gap, epidemic, and generations of federal neglect.
Last month, the Biden administration began disbursing $2 billion in funds to expand broadband access to reservations and tribal lands, part of a recent $1.3 trillion infrastructure law. But this is much less than needed. To date, 280 tribes have submitted requests totaling $5 billion to fund the Broadband Tribal Connectivity Program.
Matthew Rantanen, director of technology for the Southern California Chiefs Association, a coalition of 24 federally recognized tribes outside San Diego. It is estimated that closing the digital divide for indigenous peoples will cost nearly $8 billion.
The Owyhee Combined School is located near the Nevada-Idaho border, about an hour and a half from the nearest Walmart or bank. It is the only school in the Duck Valley Indian Reservation, which spans between the two states and has about 1,500 members of the Shoshone Paiute. All 300 reservation students, from preschoolers to high school students, attend Owyhee.
“The future of my tribe lies in this building,” says Lin Manning Jun, Owyhee’s deputy principal. Manning John was born and raised on the reserve and now heads the same school she graduated from. Most of the 450-square-mile reservations do not have cellular service and dial-up is still the only way for many residents to access the Internet. Verizon installed its first and still only cell tower in 2010. “There is no infrastructure,” she said.
Before the pandemic, the school gave every student a Chromebook. The service isn’t strong enough for all 300 students to log in simultaneously, so administrators have delayed access, setting aside times for lessons when they can log in. When distance learning began, the school introduced remote focal points. Students quickly learn that they can only take one at a time. If siblings in different classes try to use the hotspot, they will be deleted.
Manning John describes having to contact customer service for the school’s distance learning program during class to help students rejoin after they lost their connection. When the Delta variant cut a short return to in-person learning in the spring, the school reverted to paperwork, which students selected on Monday and returned on Friday.
“We have been trying to work with our local phone provider to increase our broadband since 2015,” says Manning John. “But the relative distance for them to install towers or run fibers, it’s not profitable for any company to come here.”
Currently, students alternate between personal days and days away; The default attendance rate can drop as low as 30 percent. Duck Valley Indian Reservation has applied for funds from the infrastructure bill, but has yet to hear if it will receive any.
The lack of internet access across the tribal lands goes beyond money. The neglect and exclusion of indigenous peoples goes back generations. To this day, tribal lands have relatively low access to food, clean water, and electricity. A broadband connection is just one of the many differences.
Rantanen, the chief technology officer for Tribes in Southern California, worked with the Obama administration in 2016 to identify more than 8,000 missing “average miles” on tribal lands. The “medium mile” in broadband connectivity refers to the high-speed fiber that connects the provider’s backbone network, often found in major cities, to rural hubs with their own local networks.