Panel discusses closing digital divide on Navajo Nation
FARMINGTON — When the coronavirus pandemic forced a majority of residents on the Navajo Nation to rely on the internet for work and school, it revealed the digital gap.
COVID-19 called attention to deficiencies in infrastructure and in high-speed internet service within the Navajo Nation, tribal President Jonathan Nez said during a roundtable discussion on May 6 with federal and state officials.
The Navajo Nation is 27,000 square miles, roughly equal to the size of West Virginia, and its vastness and terrain are among the obstacles to expansion of broadband access, Nez explained to the panel.
"The lack of electrical infrastructure, the existence of many dark zones with no cellular service, the lack of fiber and few broadband service providers all lead to limited and expensive broadband services for our households, schools, businesses, government offices and health care facilities," he said.
For U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, D-N.M., an image out of the pandemic showed Native American students struggling to maintain their education because they lacked internet at home.
"They had paper lessons delivered by school bus – no teacher interaction – just a bus drop," Leger Fernández said.
Statistics from the Federal Communications Commission show that Native American and Alaska Native communities have less access to broadband than the general U.S. population.
Data from the FCC in 2019 shows that over 99% of housing units in U.S. urban areas have access to broadband service, but only 65% of housing units on rural tribal lands have the same level of access.
The U.S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration has been holding tribal consultation sessions to receive feedback regarding development of its Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program.
The new grant program will deploy broadband infrastructure and establish affordable broadband programs across Indian Country to decrease the digital divide, according to the department.
"In order to get this right, we have to listen to the community and I think that is especially true on the conversation about broadband because quite frankly, the issues facing people on tribal lands are just different than in other areas of the country," U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said.
The Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program will direct $1 billion to tribal governments, tribal colleges and tribal organizations.
The amount is "a drop in the bucket," Raimondo said adding that to achieve President Joe Biden's goal of providing broadband access to every American, regardless of where they live, more funding is needed.
She explained that the job creation package put forward by Biden proposes $100 billion to completely close the digital divide across the United States.
The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority used funding it received last year through the federal coronavirus relief bill to build four towers to strengthen cellular and internet services on the reservation.
However, the tribal enterprise estimates 55 additional towers are needed to reach full coverage, NTUA General Manager Walter Haase told the panel.
While securing funding for such construction is one barrier, other hurdles are navigating the complex system of land acquisition and obtaining additional spectrum from other carriers, he said.
President Nez explained that U.S. wireless communications service providers hold the majority of the spectrum in the region and do not want to build out networks on the Navajo Nation.
"Example, Tóhajiilee is only 20 minutes west of New Mexico's largest city but only has one bar of cellular service," Nez said.
Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-546-4636 or by email at email@example.com.
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