Broken connection

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WASHINGTON – Despite years of calls to close the digital divide, Internet access in Indian country is still a fuzzy, crackly mess.

A new report conducted by Native Public Media with assistance from the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative estimates broadband penetration in Indian country to be less than 10 percent. And it says now is the time to combat the problem via a concrete federal and tribal policy path toward improvement.

Native Public Media is a nonprofit focused on advocating for policies and regulations that increase Indian media participation. The New America Foundation is a non-partisan public policy think tank.

The report, titled “New Media, Technology and Internet Use in Indian Country: Quantitative and Qualitative Analyses,” features a survey of Native American technology use normed against other national surveys. It also features six case studies of six successful efforts to close the digital divide on tribal lands.

The study is a unique endeavor, as there has historically been little qualitative or quantitative empirical research on Native American Internet use, adoption and access.

“For the first time in history, we have solid broadband data that underscores the fact that Native Americans are using the Internet when they have access to it and building their own tribal centric broadband highways when no one else will,” said Loris Taylor, Native Public Media executive director.

She said the study is important because Native Americans have largely been ignored by federal telecommunications policy and underserved by telecommunications providers.

The Federal Communications Commission itself noted in 2004 that communities on tribal lands, by virtually all measures, have historically had less access to telecommunications services than any other segment of the population.

The report’s authors said the problems have served to stifle Native voices in the arena of broadband and media policy, which, in turn, has correlated with massive accessibility issues.

But the report suggests an opportunity by way of the 2009 federal government’s economic stimulus legislation, which mandates the creation of a National Broadband Plan and authorizes a $7 billion investment in broadband infrastructure and adoption in underserved and not served areas.

“Together with an increasing recognition of the importance of universal access to digital communications and technology, these factors provide an enormous opportunity to bridge the historical and persistent Native American digital divide,” read the report.

Based on evidence from Indian communities, the authors said “tribal centric” business models have the greatest chance for sustainability, in terms of both adoption and ultimate profitability.

“When the tribe itself is. … engaged, and its institutions and families are central to the planning, chances increase for the success of robust broadband networks,” the authors said.

“The federal government should recognize this fundamental fact: Placing tribes at the center of the process on tribal lands, and implementing actions that prioritize tribes in planning, regulation and deployment is a necessary first step in achieving successful and enduring solutions to the deplorable and long standing lack of communications technologies in tribal communities nationwide.”

The report’s authors have recommended that the FCC create a policy office focused specifically on tribal communities and their needs.

The full report is available online.