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Closing the Homework Gap For Native American Tribes

By Mariel Triggs and Matthew Rantanen

It all began with the Havasupai Tribe on their stunningly beautiful reservation in Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park.

Like nearly two-thirds of people living on tribal lands in the US, the Havasupai had no access to high-speed internet.  When this access arrives, it typically starts with schools and other shared institutions. As more and more educational resources are digitized and homework assignments that utilize these resources are given more frequently, students without home broadband access are at an ever-increasing disadvantage known as the Homework Gap.

The Havasupai faced even a larger set of challenges.  With no high school on the reservation, families had the choice of stopping their childrens’ education after eighth grade or sending their children away to get even a high school degree.

Getting Started: The Policy Surprise

In 2017, MuralNet, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing Internet equity to Native American communities, partnered with The Havasupai Tribal Council, Niles Radio and Northern Arizona University in this beautiful and remote location to test the technical, policy and social aspects of bringing high speed connectivity to indigenous communities. 

MuralNet originally thought the main barriers to Internet connectivity in rural tribal communities would be the technology. They helped test open source management software to lower the costs and level of technical expertise needed to operate a network. They assembled tool kits of reliable and affordable off-the-shelf LTE equipment. 

They also built a network of lawyers and a library of legal templates to help with spectrum acquisition. Indeed, spectrum acquisition proved to be the true challenge.

The Havasupai Tribe’s pilot network was built in half a day with $15K worth of materials (details about that work are available here).  

Obtaining a permanent FCC license for spectrum in the 2.5 GHz band took 19 months and $20k in legal fees. MuralNet and The Havasupai Tribal Council challenged the FCC policies that hampered the Tribe’s efforts to build their own community network. The FCC recently released an order proposing that unlicensed 2.5 GHz spectrum can be claimed by tribal nations and their affiliates to bridge the digital divide and the homework gap on their lands, citing the work of MuralNet and The Havasupai. However, the window to claim the bandwidth is woefully short. People-Centered Internet (PCI) is sponsoring MuralNet in building awareness by creating the tools and methods necessary for an effective education and outreach campaign that can reach hundreds of Native nations who could take advantage of this opportunity.

Internet Equity At Work

Now that the Havasupai Tribe has built their broadband infrastructure, students attend real-time classes in Flagstaff without having to commute nearly four hours by car and helicopter. Head Start educators take online courses, keeping their school in compliance with national standards. Teachers have continued their education in order to obtain specialized degrees. The impact was immediate and inspiring.

Plans for a remote charter high school can also go forward. Currently the local school stops at the eighth grade and if students want to continue on to ninth grade and beyond, the fourteen year-olds must leave their homes, families and way of life to attend boarding schools.  The planned charter high school will allow these students to have the educational opportunities they need, without having to leave home. All this means more bandwidth is needed for Supai and MuralNet is teaming up again with PCI to make it happen. For $70k, last mile infrastructure can be installed that will be capable of delivering broadband speeds to every structure in the village.

How You Can Help

The great news about the Homework Gap and connectivity on tribal lands is that we know how to fix this problem.  It is technically possible and the right resources exist to successfully scale solutions in a way that works for each tribe.  While the cost is not negligible, it is not insurmountable, either.  

Here are a few ways that you can help:

  • You can advocate for Internet sovereignty for tribal nations by telling the FCC to make longer tribal priority windows. Learn how at https://muralnet.org/ebsopportunity/.  Let your elected representatives know that the FCC needs to grant tribal communities more time to claim the spectrum over their own lands  If you know tribal leaders or members who should be informed about this opportunity, please have them contact MuralNet at muralnet.org/contact for help with this process.
  • Building networks is just the beginning of our work.  Our true goal is to support Native nations realize the economic, educational and cultural visions for their people that high speed Internet access and its uses and applications make possible.  To this end, we are constantly seeking mentors and advisors who can provide business and technical assistance via phone and Facebook groups. Please contact MuralNet if you would like to mentor a community network.
  • Our deployments will always be gated by talent and capital.  We welcome donations and promise that they will go directly to the important work of creating connectivity and opportunity for people in tribal communities, particularly the children.  To donate, please click here. 

 

When you get to know one tribe, you know one tribe.  Each of the 400 tribes that can be served has a different set of motivations, economic drivers and concerns about high speed Internet and the tradeoffs between the opportunities it brings and the potential changes it will cause to the established way of life.  We have the tools to get them started and the partnerships to enable them create their own stories to empower their vision.