Indian Country left on far side of digital divide

By Alysa Landry
Special to the Times

WASHINGTON, April 4, 2013

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I f you're climbing to the tops of hills in search of cell phone service on the Navajo Nation, you're not alone.

Only 53 percent of Navajoland has wireless broadband coverage through 3G wireless technology, according to a new report from the Office of Native Affairs and Policy and the Federal Communications Commission. Wireless broadband provides mobile voice and Internet services. Nationwide coverage for 3G wireless technology is higher than 98 percent.

Jokes abound on the reservation, which consistently ranks staggeringly low in access to wireless Internet and cell phone services.

The Navajo phrase for cell phone is "bil n'joobal'," or "something you use while spinning around in circles."

The phrase is based on the description of someone spinning around with a phone, trying to get good reception.

Navajo also use the phrase "hooghan bik bil dahjilwo" to describe a cell phone, or "something you use when you run up the hill."

For the 63 percent of the Navajo population that doesn't have cell phones, however, the digital divide is even wider. The report, released March 19, is further evidence that Indian Country lags behind as the world races into the future of communications.

"By virtually any measure, communities of tribal lands have historically had less access to telecommunications services than any other segment of the population," the report states. "The lack of robust communications services presents serious impediments to tribal nations' efforts to preserve their cultures and build their internal structures."

A $46 million broadband project now in its final stages is expected to drastically improve digital communication on the 27,000-square-mile reservation.

Funded in part by a $32 million grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the project will connect 30,000 households and 1,000 businesses in 15 of the largest communities, including Window Rock, Kayenta, Shiprock, Chinle and Tuba City.

That's more than 135,000 more people on the grid and an additional 15,000 square miles connected to the wireless network, according to estimates from Navajo Tribal Utility Authority Wireless, the first broadband company of which the Navajo Nation is a majority owner.

he venture is a joint effort between NTUA and Commnet Wireless, said Deenise Becenti, a spokeswoman for NTUA, which owns 51 percent of the company.

The project began three years ago with plans to extend existing broadband services for 530 miles. Construction plans called for the installation of 96 strands of aerial fiber optic cable and 33 new microwave tower sites.

"This is an extremely robust project," said Michael Scully, general manager for NTUA Wireless. "It's exciting for a rural area like the Navajo Nation."

NTUA Wireless in February was granted a six-month extension for the project, Scully said. He hopes to complete the project "well before the new deadline."

"We're trying to get it done as quickly as we can," he said. "Much of the project is complete."

By introducing broadband services to much of the reservation, the project is allowing underserved areas unprecedented access to modern communications. Many of the households that will benefit from the project still lack basic telephone services.

In the meantime, however, rates of telephone service, cell phone reception and broadband connections on Navajoland are still dismal, according to the government report.

The FCC found that only 37 percent of Navajo residents have access to landline or cellular telephone services. By comparison, 68 percent of households in Indian Country as a whole have telephones. The national rate is nearly 98 percent.

The Navajo Nation also lags behind the nation and other reservations when it comes to cell phone reception, the report states.

According to data from The Wireless Association, an international nonprofit trade association that oversees the wireless communication industry, there are more than 320 million cell phones in the United States. National coverage for 3G networks is higher than 98 percent, leaving only small pockets of the country where cell phones will not connect.

On the Navajo Nation, however, cell phones can only be used on about half of the land base. The report specifically points out that the "sheer remoteness" of many reservations is a barrier to cell phone service.

"Often tribal members have to drive to a nearby hilltop on a reservation just to find a signal for mobile wireless service," the report states. "And even after that, access may not be guaranteed."

The rates of Internet connection on tribal land are equally appalling, the report states.

Ninety-five percent of the U.S. population lives in households with access to broadband services and two-thirds of the population subscribes to these services. Less than 10 percent of American Indians living on tribal land have similar access to the Internet, the FCC reports.

These rates are expected to change significantly - on the Navajo Nation, at least - within the coming six months when the NTUA Wireless project is complete.

"We're looking at services that will be available to people who have never had it before," Scully said. "Coverage will improve."

Lawmakers for years have called for better communications services for Indian Country, where 30 percent of households lack even the most basic telephone service.

In 2009, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., wrote a letter to the FCC, calling attention to the two out of three people on the Navajo Nation who are unable to receive telephone service in their homes - including cell phone service.

"As troubling as these statistics are, they still do not adequately convey the hardships created by this lack of telephone service," Udall wrote. "In addition to the daily inconveniences, not having a landline or cell phone reception can mean the difference between life and death."

The lack of landline or cell phone service means residents can't call an ambulance in times of emergency, Udall wrote. In his 2009 letter, he referenced a man outside of Gallup, N.M., "who missed two opportunities for a life-saving kidney transplant because he lacked telephone service at home and could not be contacted in time."

Udall was instrumental in creating the Office of Native Affairs and Policy in 2010, the same year NTUA received the stimulus grant to improve services on the Navajo Nation. As the Nation began its project, the Office of Native Affairs and Policy worked with the FCC to contact more than 400 tribal nations and travel to 42 reservations, including the Navajo Nation.

Udall has pushed for better services, claiming the FCC is charged by federal law to provide services to "consumers in all regions of the nation, including low-income consumers and those in rural, insular and high-cost areas."

The FCC's 99-page report details efforts from the first two and a half years the Office of Native Affairs and Policy has worked with tribes. The report found that infrastructure, technology and communications problems are unique and complicated, varying from tribe to tribe and even on a regional basis. The office has pledged to continue working to bridge the digital gaps.

"While many efforts to address the digital divide in Indian Country are in major motion, there is much more still to be done, new initiatives to undertake and future milestones to achieve," the report states. "Communications technologies and modern media platforms, such as broadband, hold the potential to level many of the negative impacts that history has visited on tribal nations."

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