Indian Country Today
A lack of broadband and high-speed internet connectivity has long been an issue faced by tribes across the country. The coronavirus pandemic only amplified tribal leaders’ concerns, especially as schools look to adapt to distance learning with the start of classes just around the corner.
As part of a 12-stop virtual tour across the nation, the American Library Association held an event Tuesday discussing the need “for broadband access among tribal communities and the central role libraries can play in connecting diverse populations with high-speed internet access.”
“Roughly one in four rural households cannot connect to the internet, and it is often too slow and too expensive for the households that have access,” American Library Association President Julius Jefferson Jr. said in a release before the event. “Affordable, high-speed internet access is critical as library connectivity serves as a lifeline for patrons who need access to digital collections, e-government services, legal information, distance learning, telemedicine, and many other essential community services.”
One of the success stories highlighted at the beginning of the event was that of the Jemez Pueblo Community Library in New Mexico. While the library was forced to close its doors due to the pandemic, Wi-Fi access in the parking lot has proven to be vital.
Maureen Wacondo, Jemez Pueblo, is the librarian and said she’s helped community members with everything from scanning documents to job applications and more.
As the school year nears, she said they are working to think of creative ways and creating new programs for outreach to the youth.
“We really miss the children,” Wacondo said. “We would have visits starting soon.”
Similar to the Jemez Pueblo Community Library, the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana, has also allowed community members to use the parking lot for Wi-Fi access.
Although the broadband signal is strong within the town, connectivity and even phone signals can be hard to come by just a mile out, said Aaron LaFramboise, Blackfeet.
As director of libraries for Blackfeet Community College, LaFromboise discussed the small community of Heart Butte, about 30 miles south of Browning.
“They’re right up against the mountain front, and they have, I would say, maybe three spots in their little community where you can even get cellphone service,” LaFromboise said. “A lot of people, about 70 percent of the people who have internet access, have at least cellphone service, but in the community of Heart Butte they have almost zero access.”
Watching people walk by the library doors and not being able to let them in has been difficult for LaFromboise and other staff, but the college is working to think of ways to better serve the community with the access they have.
Tribes aren’t alone in the fight for increased broadband access on tribal lands.
When asked what the larger library community can do to help tribal libraries, Marijke Visser, associate director and senior policy advocate for public policy with the American Library Association, told people watching the webinar to speak out and be an ally.
“When a tribal issue comes up, it’s really an issue for everybody since we want everybody to have that equal access to opportunity,” Visser said.
Broadband funds for tribes were included in the CARES Act and are also included in the HEROES Act, which has been passed by the House. The Senate version for coronavirus relief is still pending, although all indications are that Congress will not take a recess until such legislation is passed.
Democratic Rep. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico was also on the webinar and raised the example that people can stay connected to the internet on a cross-country flight from Los Angeles to New York, but many rural communities can’t connect.
Luján said there is a bill that can help these communities that is waiting to be taken up by the Senate. Until then, he said the Federal Communications Commission can bypass Congress and expand eligibility for E-Rate programs and projects.
E-Rate programs provide discounts to assist eligible schools and libraries, and Luján said tribes that don’t have libraries should be able to designate community gathering places as eligible for the program.
“It’s life-saving and needed,” the congressman said.
The hourlong event came and went quickly but provided many good points on the road ahead toward broadband connectivity for tribes.
“These are important conversations that will not end here,” Jefferson said to close the event.
Kolby KickingWoman, Blackfeet/A'aniih is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is from the great state of Montana and currently reports for the Washington Bureau. Follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
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