Tribe Technology: Bringing broadband to tribal lands
By Tim Farley
Bringing broadband access to Oklahoma’s Native American tribes is a critical component to their long term success and economic development plans.
Unfortunately, too many tribal members and many areas of Indian land are without Internet access, a service that’s often taken for granted in larger metropolitan areas. The reality is tribes, generally located outside the state’s two largest population centers, won’t be able to advance their agendas until broadband access is made available to everyone, according to Dennis Dyer, chairman of the Oklahoma Native American Technology Council and chief information officer for the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.
Representatives from several tribes are currently working with the Federal Communications Commission, OneNet, AtLink Services and other commercial Internet providers to bring speedier, faster broadband access to tribal members and facilities throughout Oklahoma.
Some of the tribes that have taken an active role in the council’s efforts include the Cherokee, Choctaw, Quapaw, Citizen-Potawatomi Nation, Muscogee-Creek and the Chickasaw Nation.
Yet, in some remote tribal areas, Internet access doesn’t exist.
“Everything we do is based on the Internet,” Dyer said. “You can’t run a tribal government, court system or a hospital without Internet. A community is at a disadvantage without Internet.”
For example, Dyer talked about the difficulties of attracting businesses to an industrial complex without high-speed broadband.
“Try to sell that,” he said. “It won’t fly. Everything a business does relies on broadband.”
The Citizen Potawatomi Nation, along with many other Native American tribes, has formulated an economic development plan that includes the obvious – casinos. But, Dyer said, it’s more than gambling and entertainment for tribal leaders. The Citizen Potawatomi Nation established a federal free trade zone in Shawnee that has attracted interest from a Turkish tea company, which is one of several firms that have contacted the tribe.
“Tribal footprints are expanding with federal money and successful business ventures,” he said. “When you’re dealing with business recruitment and bringing companies onto tribal lands, robust networks are needed.”
That’s where the technology council plays a vital role, Dyer said. The group has been working with a variety of businesses to advance its technology goals since April. First, the council wants to identify opportunities and challenges of tribal governments as they pertain to technological advancements and to form a “unified” voice in addressing governmental issues related to broadband access, grants and economic development.
“The Council will work to ensure sovereign tribal nations, both large and small, gain access to high speed broadband through education and adoption efforts and will assist in developing viable broadband projects that will capitalize on these benefits, and help drive sustainable economic development opportunities for Indian tribal governments in the state,” Dyer wrote in an April letter to Oklahoma’s 39 tribes.
Almost, but not quite
OneNet, Oklahoma’s only statewide Internet service provider, has created broadband access along Interstate 40 near Shawnee, but stops there.
“We’re only six miles away, but still can’t get the speed we need. There are reasons for them to be here (on tribal lands), but they haven’t figured out how to get here,” Dyer said.
That’s where companies like AtLink have provided their expertise while providing underground and above ground fiber to areas tribal governments can access.
Another partner in the project is the federal government, specifically the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Commerce.
“We’ve talked about how we can get to that last mile,” Dyer said. “Since tribal borders are touching it’s possible tribes may work together on projects. Everyone is facing the same issues.”
At some point in the future, tribes may create their own power grids that include a substation, Internet, fiber and other utilities.
Another bonus for upgrading tribal technology is the electronic storage and preservation of a tribe’s language, history and culture, Dyer said.
“If we can do that along the way, that’s great,” he said.