Leah Todd, High Country News
This story is part of the State of Change project, produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network.
For decades in these sparsely populated valleys and peaks in northern New Mexico, the internet has been slow, unreliable and expensive. This region is not remote, exactly. Several small tribal communities are nestled a half hour’s drive from the state seat in Santa Fe and the same distance from Albuquerque, the state’s largest city. But most cell phone service drops conspicuously between the two urban centers, and internet connections are elusive.
“We’re so close to the capital,” Cochiti Pueblo education director Kevin Lewis said. “And yet so divided digitally.”
Nationally, tribal lands have some of the lowest internet access rates of any demographic. According to the Federal Communications Commission, 41 percent of people living on tribal lands in the U.S. lack access to high-speed internet. In rural areas on tribal lands, 68 percent don’t have access. Lewis’s community, however, is an outlier.
Today, Cochiti Pueblo and three others are just feet away from completing a $4.2 million, 32-mile line of fiber-optic cables. The project will connect tribal libraries across the four communities at a fraction of the price internet service has cost until now. The Middle Rio Grande Pueblo Tribal Consortium, the group leading the project, is one of a growing number of tribally led broadband internet initiatives in the U.S., and one of few collaborative projects that allow rural tribes to aggregate demand and negotiate lower prices.
Though this community’s sojourn into modern day technology is far from perfect — this network connects libraries, but leaves hospitals and homes lacking, for instance — internet researchers say few other tribal nations have achieved the same level of cooperation across multiple sovereign governments. Their story of navigating federal funding streams and building consensus to launch their own internet network could chart a path for other rural communities seeking the same.
Libraries as a backbone
In more ways than one, libraries are a backbone for New Mexico’s rural communities. On the four pueblos involved in the Middle Rio Grande consortium — Cochiti, Santo Domingo, Santa Ana and San Felipe — it’s not uncommon to see a troupe of cars parked in library parking lots after dark, screens aglow, drivers downloading files for homework or streaming movies. Nearly half of all tribal libraries are their community’s only source of free public internet access, according to the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums.
“Nighttime parking lot WiFi is an infrastructure in our state,” said Kimball Sekaquaptewa, the New Mexico-based manager of tribal critical infrastructure at a tribally owned insurance provider, AMERIND Risk.
Such after-hours access was an imperfect solution, though, and the connections the libraries offered were glacial. For Lewis and the Cochiti Pueblo, internet bills crept upwards of $1,500 a month for a connection that didn’t even meet the federal definition of “high speed.” When one person uses the internet connection to livestream a distance learning class online at Cochiti Pueblo’s library, no one else can use the internet, Lewis said.
But traditional internet service providers weren’t doing these sparse communities any favors. “Our patron base was too small,” Lewis said. “Who wants to spend $4 million on a network to pick up 75 customers at Cochiti?”
It’s a problem many rural communities — whether tribal or not —face. “The market is simply failing a lot of communities, and a lot of those communities are Indigenous, whether it be Alaska or Canada, or South Dakota, or very small, rural communities where the return on investment for companies to go in and build infrastructure is just not there,” said Mark Buell, the North American bureau director for the Internet Society, an international organization that studies and advocates for internet-related issues. “There, the network solution is driven by community. Often not for profit, but not necessarily.”
While the Middle Rio Grande consortium chased funding for a fiber-optic connection, widely considered the fastest available, other tribes have used wireless technology, including this network launched by the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association. Still other rural places have turned to municipally owned networks and rural electric cooperatives to build high-speed networks, sometimes with massive federal grants, other times with loans the co-op will pay back over time as the internet service expands.
When the Albuquerque-area tribes teamed up, they aggregated demand across the four tribal communities to apply together for federal funding available to pay for infrastructure for rural communities seeking to connect schools and libraries. The program, called E-rate, has been around since the late 1990s, and while it has helped more than six out of 10 public libraries in the U.S. get discounted internet service and technology, only 15 percent of tribal libraries have used the program. Roughly $3.9 million of the $4.2 million price tag on fiber construction to the four New Mexico pueblos comes from the E-rate program, the largest E-rate award in the state in 2016. The rest will come from local matches.
Sekaquaptewa and Lewis, both members of Cochiti Pueblo, visited tribal councils, talking with tribal leaders and building consensus among elders. The going was slow at first, and weekly project meetings slated for one hour started lasting two or three.
For Everett Chavez, administrator of tribal programs and a three-time former governor of Santo Domingo Pueblo, the internet project wasn’t a tough sell. Chavez doesn’t have a home internet connection, but he knows its importance; his son drives to the top of a nearby hill to download documents for school using a cellphone hot spot.
“It’s an equity issue for us,” Chavez said. “Education is something the pueblo has promoted, and we’re proud of that.” Teachers regularly assign homework that involves an internet connection, and Lewis says more students would sign up for online higher education or high school equivalency classes if the libraries could accommodate them.
The path to laying fiber in the ground wasn’t perfect for this group. Navigating federal regulations on how subsidies can and can’t be used and keeping track of deadlines was tough. “Hard deadlines are hard deadlines, we learned that really quick,” Lewis said. The group has spent more time than they anticipated shepherding the infrastructure work, cutting into valuable time that could be spent devising a plan for service delivery, he said.
And the federal E-rate program itself isn’t perfect. Confusing paperwork can lead to denials. Applications can linger in red tape. More than two dozen projects waited nearly a year for a decision, according to research compiled by EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit that advocates for better internet access in schools. According to their analysis, three New Mexico school districts’ applications have been unfairly denied.
Locally, too, bureaucracy proved challenging. “Bureaucracy is our biggest problem,” Gar Clarke, broadband program manager for the New Mexico Department of Information Technology, said at a recent gathering of the New Mexico chapter of the Internet Society. “If you’re a school and you apply, you can’t light up the health care clinic next door.” The state has hired an E-rate specialist to help any public school on tribal lands — but that doesn’t include all Bureau of Indian Education schools. Chavez said a Bureau of Indian Affairs school on San Felipe Pueblo won’t be connected to this fiber-optic system, for instance, because it doesn’t qualify as “public” under federal standards.
For now, the group of library directors and others running the project meets once a week, going over construction updates and redesigning construction paths and budgets when necessary ahead of a planned June launch. The Internet Society is studying how the group’s efforts could be replicated elsewhere, and consortium members like Lewis and Sekaquaptewa are regular speakers at rural internet gatherings, wanting to export what they’ve learned to other rural and Indigenous communities.
Buell, the Internet Society researcher, says three factors contribute to the success or failure of a community network like the tribes’: technology, governance and a business model that will last. No one model is right for every network. Many governance models will work, Buell said. It’s about finding the one that’s right for each community and regulatory environment. Some tribal networks are more market-oriented and capitalistic; others prioritize more traditional decision-making models.
“They need to reflect communities’ priorities from governance structures all the way down to who’s deploying the technology,” Buell said. “It’s the same no matter where you go. If it’s driven by the community, it’s much more likely to succeed in the long term.”
Challenges remain for the tribal internet consortium, mostly when it comes to sustaining and expanding the internet service. Chavez met recently with New Mexico’s U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D, to push a bill that would expand the federal E-rate program to include other anchor institutions in the community, like hospitals and tribal governments, not just schools and libraries. “Right now the focus is too narrow,” Chavez said. Extending broadband internet infrastructure to homes would have economic benefits, too, by connecting local artists to a larger market, he said.
And besides having the expertise needed to navigate complicated right-of-way and inter-governmental issues, for Chavez, there was a bigger reason why it was crucial the tribes lead the effort.
“It was important the first players were the tribes, in selling this to our councils,” Chavez said. “When we talk about sovereignty … we can’t just talk sovereign, we’ve got to act sovereign.”
Leah Todd is a freelance reporter living in Taos, New Mexico, and the Mountain States coordinator for the Solutions Journalism Network. She has covered education for The Seattle Times and Casper Star-Tribune. This story was contributed by High Country News.