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New Mexico tribes get help connecting to Internet

WASHINGTON ? Congress has awarded the University of New Mexico's Arts of the Americas Institute nearly a million dollars to help bridge the "digital divide" between American Indian communities and the Internet.

The institute will work with the pueblos of Zuni, Jemez, and Pojoaque, the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center of Albuquerque and the Jicarilla Apache Nation to provide broadband Internet access.

The funding is provided through the Technology Opportunities program, a division of the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Broadband technology refers to communications networks, such as telephone lines, that are capable of transmitting very high quantities of electronic data. Some in Congress, like Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said projects like this give tribal communities the ability to catch up with the rest of America when it comes to the Internet and e-commerce.

"In much the same way the telephone became a critical part of communication shortly after its invention, broadband Internet access now plays a critical role in education and economic development," Udall said. "Those without access can all too easily be left behind. This funding will provide a chance for Native Americans to close this technology gap."

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Tribal communities across the country already are behind when it comes to basic phone service. In 1999 the Economic Development Administration published a survey which found that only 39 percent of the rural households in 48 Native communities surveyed had basic telephone service, with 9 percent having personal computers and 8 percent Internet access. That same year, the Commerce Department issued a report which said the number of rural Native American households with a computer was much lower than the national average (26.8 percent to 42.1 percent), as was the number of Native American households with access to the Internet (18.9 percent to 26.2 percent).

Broadband services typically have a much higher capacity than conventional "dial-up" Internet access and businesses are increasingly using the Internet for e-commerce. However, one of the major barriers rural businesses face is poor access to Internet service since companies generally offer current-generation broadband service only in areas of high population. Under the university's project, each tribe will be equipped with broadband access for a variety of purposes, including distance learning and e-commerce opportunities.

"By encouraging companies to provide broadband services, we can make sure that rural New Mexico has the tools to compete," Udall said.

Forrester Research suggests that e-commerce sales will grow to $3 trillion by 2003. In March 2001 consumers spent $3.5 billion online. Broken down, this means that 13.5 million households spent an average of $263 per person. Given the right tools, such as broadband, or even basic access, tribal businesses have the ability to become a larger part of this growing market.