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Digital Nation: How the IT Revolution Leaves Native Nations Behind

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By Michelle Watts, Faculty Director, School of Security and Global Studies; Travis Trueblood, JD; and Mark Colwell, Research Assistant

While many people in the United States take the Internet for granted, adequate access to the Internet is still a challenge for many others, especially those who live in rural tribal areas. This problem is not unique to Native nations, but Native Americans are disproportionately affected by a lack of adequate broadband access.

Information technology is increasingly being seen as a right, not just in the United States, but internationally as well. In fact, the United Nations declared Internet access a human right, asserting that it is a tool for social progress.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) considerably raised the benchmark for adequate access in 2015. The new benchmark goes from just four megabits per second (Mbps) to 25 Mbps for downloads, and from one to three Mbps for uploads. It sets a high standard of access that the FCC is charged with delivering to all.

Michael Copps, acting chairman of the FCC in 2009, described Internet access as a panacea for the myriad challenges facing the U.S. “Broadband can be the great enabler that restores America’s economic well-being and opens doors of opportunity for all Americans to pass through no matter who they are, where they live or the particular circumstances of their individual lives,” Copps said.

However, for many Native Americans in this country, Copps’ vision remains elusive.

US Still Trails Other Countries in Adequate Internet Access

Despite the high bar the U.S. has set, we still lag behind other developed countries in providing adequate Internet access to all our citizens. Approximately 10% of U.S. citizens lack adequate access. Of that population, about 41% of reside on tribal lands. In fact, as many as 68% of people who live in rural tribal areas do not have reliable Internet access.

This lack of Internet access means that people in impoverished areas do not have the same ability as other U.S. citizens to search for and apply for jobs or grants. They cannot conduct research, further their education online or to avail themselves of any other services that are increasingly found online. The lack of Internet access makes it even more difficult for them to change their situation in life.

However, simply providing Internet access is not enough. Studies, such as a 2001 study by DiMaggio and Hargittai and a 2008 study by Hargittai and Hinnant,  found that even with Internet access, inequalities persist, creating a “second-level digital divide” (602).

Native Americans who have insufficient experience and training for careers often do not know how to take advantage of online opportunities. In fact, new and untrained online users may be taken advantage of by being charged excessive amounts for Internet access or by falling victim to online pitfalls, such as computer viruses, financial scam artists and ransomware.

More Infrastructure, New Technologies and Better Training Are Needed

Building infrastructure, creating new technologies and increasing opportunities for training will enable those without Internet services to take advantage of many digital civil and economic opportunities.

Note the sparse coverage in Alaska, which is home to 229 of the 567 federally recognized tribal nations

First, although infrastructure projects are working to connect remote areas, they often are not cost-effective for either providers or customers. One of the alternative technologies worth considering is UltraWideBand (UWB) technology, which does not require new infrastructure because it takes advantage of existing radio frequencies.

The FCC currently restricts the use of UWB, fearing it would interfere with existing communications frequencies. But loosening the restrictions on UWB use could open doors of communication in remote areas such as tribal lands.

Second, Native nations should consider working with companies that offer Internet alternatives. Through Project Loon, Google uses balloons to extend wireless access to remote areas where it is not cost-efficient or attractive for standard Internet providers. Facebook is trying a similar project using drones powered by solar panels.

Finally, several companies are considering providing Internet access using satellites. Space X plans a test launch in 2018. If the trial is successful and approved by the FCC, Space X plans to deploy thousands of satellites by 2024.

Sparse coverage in these states that have many Native nations

Boeing and OneWeb have filed similar proposals with the FCC. Currently, these plans are stalled because of FCC and congressional concerns about interference and space debris. Senators have requested that these organizations create plans to avoid satellite collisions, deal with defunct satellites and space debris.

It remains to be seen if these billion-dollar projects will come to fruition and deliver faster and more affordable Internet access to rural people such as Native Americans. However, even if all of these satellite systems are deployed, there will still be a need for receiving infrastructure in remote areas.

Moreover, according to Chike Aguh of EveryonOn, ending Net Neutrality will increase the digital divide and weaken programs such as LifeLine that planned to provide millions in the U.S. with low cost or free Internet Service.  In addition, it is likely to further de-incentivize Internet Service Providers to provide affordable services in rural areas.

Native nation colleges and libraries provide important services for indigenous peoples to build capacity and fluency with information technology. But academics and indigenous users recognize that simply providing Internet access is not enough; training and technical support are also essential.

Most importantly, indigenous peoples must be active partners in determining their information technology needs and solutions. They must formulate an IT strategy best suited to their own people that will lead to better social, economic, political and cultural outcomes.

Information technology may offer limitless possibilities. But without access and training, it merely widens the digital and socio-economic divide in the United States.

Get started on your cybersecurity degree at American Military University.

About the Authors

Michelle Watts is a faculty director for American Public University System. In addition to supervising faculty members, she teaches courses on international relations, international development and Latin American Studies online. Michelle is an advisor to the Gamma Omega chapter of the Sigma Iota Rho international relations honor society. She has obtained several grants to conduct research in Latin America, in recent years focusing on indigenous people.

Travis W. Trueblood, an enrolled tribal citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, is an attorney who is routinely consulted on matters related to tribal nations and issues. He has represented more than 30 tribes during his career throughout the country on numerous issues pertaining to sovereignty and economic development. He has worked specifically on numerous telecommunications projects in Indian Country and is an advocate for expanding telecommunications to enable economies on Indian Reservations.

Mark Colwell is a graduate student with American Military University, pursuing a Master of Science in information technology project management. He currently works as a senior program analyst, supporting United States Army cryptographic modernization efforts as a contractor. Mark retired from the Army in 2003 after 20 years of service and holds a Bachelor of Science in Liberal Studies with concentrations in management and sociology from Excelsior College.