RED CLIFF – A task force created by Gov. Tony Evers this month may help expand broadband access across the state, including on Native American rural reservations.
Much of the problem in getting high-speed internet access to rural communities lies in the many miles of communications lines that would have to be installed.
Without government investment in that infrastructure, providing access would not be economically feasible for private companies, officials said.
“Having awareness of the problem is a first step,” said Theron Rutyna, IT director for the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, who sits on the newly formed task force. “Now, that awareness is at the top of government, we should be able to do something about it.”
Satellite internet or cellphone mobile “hot spots” may be available for rural residents, but they don’t provide the speeds or allowable data amounts needed for extended periods of today’s online activities, such as video conferencing.
Sovereign tribal governments also have their own laws regarding permits, contracts and taxes, adding an administrative layer to installing broadband infrastructure on reservations.
“Getting to know all of that can be a significant obstacle for a broadband company,” Rutyna said.
Not only do more people in Wisconsin face slower Internet speeds than the national average, but about a quarter of residents in rural areas also lack access to at least one broadband service, according to the Federal Communications Commission’s 2020 Broadband Deployment Report.
The new task force will advise the governor and legislature on broadband policy and strategies for expanding high speed internet statewide.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored that access to high-speed broadband is a necessity, not a luxury, and folks across our state have had to adapt from kids and educators shifting to virtual classrooms, workers having to work from home and even folks using telemedicine to visit with their doctor,” Evers said in a press release. “This task force will bring together experts from across the state to research and recommend solution that state leaders can adopt to connect every person in Wisconsin.”
The shortcomings were especially apparent this spring when students were learning at during the pandemic. Rutyna estimates that up to 60% of rural Indigenous students did not have access to adequate internet service to do their homework.
In the Lac du Flambeau Band of Chippewa reservation, Internet provider Frontier was the only company with consistent service. However, the company did not have enough accounts available to service every household on the reservation even if every family could afford it, according to Samantha Maki, director of education for the tribe.
And the company’s bandwidth speed usually allowed for only one device to be streaming in a household at times on the Forest County Potawatomi Community reservation. That was a problem for families with multiple students, according to Thomas Boelter, director of education and culture for that tribe.
“Frontier would like to be able to provide higher speed broadband to all households, however upgrading broadband infrastructure in rural areas is economically challenging,” said Javier Mendoza, vice president of corporate communications for Frontier.
Frontier is partnering with Connect America Fund, a federal effort to deliver internet access with download speeds of at least 10 Mbps to 76,000 Wisconsin households, including the tribal communities of Lac du Flambeau Band, Potawatomi and Ho Chunk Nation.
The company also is planning to utilize the fund to expand broadband service in 2020 to customers in the Sokaogon Chippewa Community, Menominee Indian Tribe and Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians.
“We will also continue to evaluate and execute strategies to improve our service and ensure our customers have access to reliable and affordable service,” Mendoza said.
Rutyna is joined by 23 others on the task force, including representatives of AT&T, Charter Communications, TDS Telecommunications and several members of the state legislature.
The governor’s budget earmarked $48 million earlier this year for a two-year broadband expansion grant program.
Yet, it is unlikely that reservations will see any significant broadband infrastructure improvements this summer should e-learning have to continue into the fall, Rutyna said.
But the tribes are finding ways to prepare nonetheless.
An AT&T communications tower was installed last year on the Red Cliff reservation. Infrastructure enabling an increase in wireless internet to service much of the reservation might be able to be installed this summer, according to Rutyna.
The Potawatomi tribe had purchased some educational programs that could be downloaded so students could work on them offline when internet service slowed or was unavailable.
In addition, the Lac du Flambeau tribe is installing WiFi boosters in government buildings, so students can access the internet from the parking lots of those buildings.
The task force hopes to help meet the state’s goal of providing affordable broadband access to all of Wisconsin’s residents by 2025.
“We are hopeful that this task force will greatly benefit Wisconsin’s Indian Country,” said Red Cliff Vice Chairman Nathan Gordon.
Frank Vaisvilas is a Report For America corps member based at the Green Bay Press-Gazette covering Native American issues in Wisconsin. He can be reached at 920-228-0437 or [email protected], or on Twitter at @vaisvilas_frank. Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible gift to this reporting effort at GreenBayPressGazette.com/RFA.
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