Experts in Community Networks and Tribal Connectivity Collaborate With Philanthropy to Address the Digital Divide in Native American Communities

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Digital Beat

Experts in Community Networks and Tribal Connectivity Collaborate With Philanthropy to Address the Digital Divide in Native American Communities

Adrianne B. Furniss

Tribal lands and Native American communities are some of the least connected places in the United States. Infrastructure deployment lags behind that in other rural communities. Only 46.6 percent of housing units on rural tribal lands have access to broadband service. And even when they are connected, households on tribal lands tend to pay more for basic broadband plans and receive lower speeds.

Native Americans are increasingly building their own broadband networks to deliver high-quality internet access for their communities, but they face significant challenges—from access to financing, to access to spectrum, to technical knowledge and skills. 

Tribal Broadband Bootcamps (TBBs) provide an intensive learning experience on the technical, business, policy, and social aspects of building, maintaining, and using broadband networks in Native American communities. Over three days, bootcamps bring together network architects, service managers, and policy experts to walk tribal participants through building and operating networks. TBBs are focused on hands-on, practical learning that demystifies the technical aspects, including how deep to trench fiber and how to build, break, and repair wireless connections. Through sessions on funding opportunities and how to enroll community members in the Affordable Connectivity Program, TBBs ensure that these networks are sustainable and will continue to serve Native American communities for decades to come.

Matt Rantanen of the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association’s (SCTCA) Tribal Digital Village, Chris Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Spencer Sevilla of TreetopNetworks, Sascha Meinrath of X-Lab, Mark Buell of Internet Society (and now Connect Humanity), and many others collaborated to run the first bootcamp in July 2021 with funding support from the Internet Society Foundation. Its aim, initially, was to support tribes that received 2.5 GHz licenses under the Federal Communications Commission’s Tribal Priority Window. The bootcamp focused on building, maintaining, and troubleshooting wireless networks. Subsequent bootcamps in March and May 2022 evolved to meet the needs of participating tribes, including trainings on fiber networks as well as digital inclusion. 

The cost of a single bootcamp can range from $100,000 to $150,000, depending on the number of participants and how far they must travel. Planning and logistics costs are borne by Connect Humanity and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Additionally, some of the instructors donate their time. Participants who are able can pay a registration fee, but it is not a requirement for attendance.

Other bootcamps were made possible by Schmidt Futures and the Michelson 20MM Foundation. The First Nations Development Institute has also underwritten the participation of some tribal attendees. Funders have been active participants in previous bootcamps not only by learning about the specific connectivity challenges faced by indigenous communities, but also by contributing their own expertise. They have led sessions on how tribal networks can raise funds, maintain donor relationships, and demonstrate the value of their work. 

This funder involvement illustrates the broader collaboration and friendly environment emphasized at TBBs. Bootcamps welcome newcomers and broadband veterans alike. At previous bootcamps, people who worked on subscriber billing, with no interest in technology, left wanting to climb towers and install equipment. Some technicians left with an understanding of how the broadband provider must work as a business, or how federal policy has shaped connectivity on Tribal lands.

Beyond building capacity, the bootcamps are valuable for fostering community. Participants from previous bootcamps can reach out for advice and questions. Tribes often face shared challenges, and the Tribal Broadband Bootcamps offer a space to recognize these common problems and find solutions together.

We appreciate the contributions of Revati Prasad, Director of Research and Fellowships, Benton Institute for Broadband & Society; Chris Mitchell, Director of Community Broadband Networks, Institute for Local Self-Reliance; and Matt Rantanen, Director of Technology, Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association

Adrianne B. Furniss is the Executive Director of the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society.

More in this series

These articles and much more in Pathways to Digital Equity: How Communities Can Reach Their Broadband Goals—and How Philanthropy Can Help

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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Kevin Taglang
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Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
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By Adrianne B. Furniss.