This past August, the Open Technology Institute (OTI) (a program of New America) released its 2020 Cost of Connectivity Report, which showed that a combination of regulatory and oversight choices combined with market forces results in Internet access that for most Americans is slower, less reliable, and more expensive than elsewhere in the world.
In October, the OTI followed up that report with one focused on the Navajo Nation. It argues that “altogether, the federal government’s failure to connect people on tribal lands deprives entire tribes of opportunities for employment, healthcare, education, and economic growth in both the short and long-term.”
The Navajo Nation is divided into 109 political subdivisions (called chapters) by geography across Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. The OTI report finds that just four of those chapters have access speeds which meet the FCC’s standard for basic broadband (25/3Mbps (Megabits per second)), and that many in the community remain stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide.
Claire Park, author of the study, pulled data from the Navajo Nation Woven Integrated Data Project and combined it with FCC data and state broadband maps from March to July 2020, cross checking a sample of addresses with existing residential Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in those areas. It uses a total of 450 offered plans in its data set.
The report succinctly argues that broadband remains just one among the litany of struggles that those living on tribal lands face:
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic exposes the deeply unjust policies behind stark inequities in certain communities. In the case of tribal nations, the federal government’s lack of support during the pandemic is another chapter in a brutal history of injustice that leaves tribes particularly vulnerable to this disease. Generations of federal policies undermining Indigenous wealth, power, and sovereignty have left many Native people without access to basic infrastructure, including food, running water, safe and adequate housing, telecommunications service, and healthcare.
In this context it offers some startling conclusions about the quality and cost of Internet access available to most living on tribal lands:
- Internet service in the Navajo Nation is significantly more expensive than service advertised in other areas of the United States, burdening many on tribal lands living at or below the poverty level . . . on average $21.70 to $44.01 more expensive than elsewhere in the country.
- The median download speed of our larger U.S. dataset is 150 Mbps, more than 10 times faster than that in the Navajo Nation.
- In 65 chapters, satellite is the only option available.
- Disparities in Internet access on tribal lands are unique, and differ from hardships experienced in other rural areas. While the tribal digital divide is partly a product of many tribes’ rural settings, tribal rural areas lack access to high-speed broadband at higher rates than non-tribal rural areas.
OTI ends with a handful of policy recommendations to begin addressing the connectivity and cost gaps:
- The FCC needs to consistently collect accurate data on the state of internet service in tribal lands.
- Federal subsidies should incentivize adoption of newer, faster technologies and tribal solutions.
- The FCC should better prioritize tribal access to dormant spectrum.
Exploring the economic, educational, and wellness costs of this lack of affordable, fast Internet access to the Navajo Nation are beyond the scope of the report, but they are no doubt more strongly manifested examples of familiar trends: fewer economic opportunities, students who will continue to fall further behind, a continued absence of crucial social connections, poorer health and mental health outcomes, and in general host of other struggles which will persist for a long time..
Read the full report below, or download it here [pdf]. Listen to Episode 435 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast below, where Christopher talks with Catherine Nicolaou from Sacred Wind Communications about their efforts to expand service to Navajo Nation residents in Northwest New Mexico and bring high-speed reliable service to those living there.