Tech

Faced with limited resources, Indigenous communities built their own internet. Here’s how.

Faced with limited resources, Indigenous communities built their own internet. Here’s how.

Geography, politics, and economic conditions have left many indigenous communities disconnected from the wider internet for decades.

Geography, politics, and economic conditions have left many indigenous communities disconnected from the wider internet for decades.

Image: elyse butler

As ubiquitous as “The Internet” is, more than 40 million Americans can’t access it from home. And rural Indigenous communities (at least 628,000 households) are some of the most disconnected. They’ve been forced to come up with their own solutions, and in many ways, they’re succeeding. 

This year, COVID-19 has shown the true severity of this digital divide for all. Limited internet access has impacted work-from-home opportunities and alternative income sources for communities whose businesses have been severely impacted. It’s complicated telehealth options, and, as schools moved online, placed homes without reliable internet at a severe disadvantage. With more than 50% of Native households without a computer, high-speed internet access, or both, according to data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau, Indigenous communities were hit even harder. 

To understand what’s happening, you have to go back 30 years, when the federal government was in the midst of building the internet. Miles of fiber optic cables were buried underground to connect households with cable broadband, extending networks run primarily by the military at the time. Those projects didn’t reach everywhere — not the Grand Canyon, not the Rocky Mountains, and not the rural, predominantly poor or Indigenous communities scattered across the country. 

According to Matthew Rantanen, director of technology for the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association, 8,000 miles of cables could have connected the missed areas. Those missing “middle miles” represent swaths of individuals effectively removed from the kind of internet we’re used to — market-based, high-speed, and provided by one of those mega corporations that’s usually bombarding you with ads. These rural and Indigenous communities went without direct internet access for years. Many still live without convenient connections. 

But some unreached users have found alternative ways to build. The community networks vary. Some are rooted in setting up basic wireless internet connectivity, while others have prioritized full infrastructure projects to build fiber optic cable connections. Most are installed and operated by the community members themselves. These Indigenous operators have founded their own local internet service providers, set rates that are accessible for members, and continue to manage expansion projects with larger service providers as needed. 

Here’s how they did it.

The Tribal Digital Village changed their internet story

Matthew Rantanen is also the director of the Tribal Digital Village, a Southern California initiative originally founded in 2001 to connect San Diego’s Tribal and Rural Communities to the internet. The Village operates tech centers and runs its own community-based network, TDVNet, which provides wireless broadband service to hundreds of households within the oversight of the Southern California Tribal Chairman’s Association. Rantanen has two decades of experience in the field, promoting policy one day and working on the ground to build broadband access the next, and has been involved from the very beginning. “The network today serves about 108 tribal municipalities,” he says. “So tribal offices, utilities, programs, EPA departments, law enforcement, fire, things like that. And then we have roughly 400 homes connected.” 

The Village was born out of an infrastructure project to expand a nearby supercomputer at the University of California, San Diego. As academics sought access to build through San Diego tribal land, they offered communities access to limited internet for after-school programs. “We’re talking like old-school, slow internet,” Rantanen said. But the new access inspired the community to build a more robust, faster internet option, applying for grants to create the infrastructure that would later become a locally run internet service, TDVNet.

These grants didn’t come easy. In the first year, Rantanen was confronted by the inaccessibility of state resources for Indigenous technology initiatives. “We were looking at the federal funding opportunities that are out there for everyone. Well, they’re not all there for tribes,” Rantanen explained. 

Take federal E-Rate funding, telecommunications subsidies the government offers to schools and libraries. Qualifying schools and libraries have to be certified through the state, but, due to their federal oversight, tribal facilities couldn’t be accredited locally. The federal/state distinction continued to be a problem until Rantanen and advocates found allies at a local state college, CSU San Marcos. The university library vetted tribal schools for tech funding that provided computers and other equipment, allowing Rantanen and other community leaders to expand the Village’s services and reach. Rantanen says they used this ally-based strategy in multiple communities within the Southern California Tribal Chairman’s Association to receive tech subsidies and increase computer access. And, with extra funding from private sources, like a $5 million “digital village” grant from Hewlett Packard, the village began building the physical infrastructure for TDVNet.  

TDVNet now offers a high-speed wireless network utilizing mountain-top towers constructed on tribal land through community labor and digital village grants. The towers are solar-powered and able to service 350 miles of what are called “point-to-point” and “point-to-multi-point” links, which provide broadband internet to families and businesses across the tribes that make up the Southern California Tribal Association. 

As with mass-market internet providers, prices and speed vary on location and plan.TDVNet is provided for free to 60 “community anchor institutions” (like safety services and tribal community facilities) and, as of September, offers four months of free internet for families with K-12 children. Household rates — which range from $25 to $65 a month — go back into servicing the network. While many internet providers and government assistant programs offer accessible internet costs to certain households — some with monthly service as low as $5 — those options have been widely unavailable to communities served by TDVNet. But also, comparing a mass-market provider’s rates and speeds to these small community networks is a bit like comparing apples to oranges. The monthly rates of community networks go directly back into the community’s work, not to the costs of a large corporation. According to the network’s website, TDVNet is a “commercial network for the purposes of sustainability, not financial gain.” 

Community members build out the foundations for service towers during the first phase of TDVNet in 2002.

Community members build out the foundations for service towers during the first phase of TDVNet in 2002.

Image: tribal digital village

TDVNet towers overlook the homes in Pala, California.

TDVNet towers overlook the homes in Pala, California.

Image: tribal digital village

Building networks through nonprofits 

Projects like the Tribal Digital Village have grown over the years, due in part to nonprofits that help coordinate logistics on behalf of communities. The Internet Society, a global nonprofit promoting safe and accessible internet, specifically focuses on “underserved” communities like rural, Indigenous populations or urban pockets that lack the economic resources to connect to the internet. The organization frequently collaborates with Rantanen and TDVNet, and has financially supported their work through the Internet Society Foundation, the funding nonprofit behind the society’s global work. 

Mark Buell, the Internet Society’s regional Vice President for North America, explained there hasn’t been incentive for major internet service providers to do the work instead. “Because of politics, geography, regulations, people were left out… The market-based approach has failed or isn’t profitable in these communities,” Buell said. As both Buell and Rantanen explain, many providers don’t believe the possible revenue from a small community is worth the construction costs needed to expand their current infrastructure into these rural communities. This is the step that community networks take on themselves.

In 2017, the society launched its first Indigenous Connectivity Summit, convening leaders, academics, and advocates to exchange knowledge. By 2019, the summit expanded to include two training programs for participants — one for policy advocates pushing for solutions to the digital divide at the government level, and another to train leaders in physically building local internet connections.    

The requirements for any network initiative

Both Rantanen and Buell commented on the need for community networks to be tailored to fit the geographies and economic realities of those operating them. “There are as many models of community networks as there are communities,” Buell said. But there are common threads throughout the projects that can help guide prospective network projects.

Find community champions

According to Buell, these are Indigenous community advocates that take on the role of coordinating partners and logistics. Without these leaders, and strong support from a majority of the community, a lot of network initiatives fail to physically maintain networks, build relationships with funding sources and other facilitators, or encourage longterm investment by the network users themselves. “In the end it has to be the community that builds it. They’re the ones who operate it,” Buell said. “They’ll see value in the service and invest in it.”

Establish need

Does the community want to invest in full cable or fiber optic connections to their homes? Does the area only have the infrastructure to support wireless hotspots? Is there a lack of physical infrastructure or just funding? Rantanen explained that this step should be as democratic as possible. “You involve all the departments of the tribe, everybody chimes in, and you come up with a solution that will serve that tribe. You can scale that network to the needs of the community,” Rantanen explained. 

Source funding to build out networks

Rantanen says the next step is to ask: “Does the tribe have economic development? Does it have its own money to be able to do this? Or is it going to rely on a subsidy or a grant?” Frequently used funding sources include technology subsidies or private funding from companies and nonprofits. And organizations like the Internet Society connect network projects to funding sources, occasionally offering funds to projects directly. Broadband USA, a program out of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, has a searchable database of funding options for all types of community networks. 

This is also where the federal government can step up. Currently, the Bureau of Indian Affairs offers National Tribal Broadband Grants for select communities. The Biden Administration included $1 billion toward Indigenous broadband connectivity in its COVID relief bill passed last week, and on Thursday congressional Democrats unveiled a $94 billion proposal to help improve access to affordable internet. The proposal would give “preference to projects that help rural and tribal areas or those that provide better, cheaper Internet to lower-income communities” the Washington Post reports. In one of the biggest steps yet, the FCC opened up a Tribal Priority Window last year for Indigenous communities to apply for free spectrum bandwidth licenses — federal permissions to transmit data and provide wireless services over specific radio frequencies. This is crucial, Rantanen says. Licensed spectrum on high bandwidths is difficult to come by (most is overseen by the federal government and the military) and any unused spectrum goes to auction to the highest bidder, normally mass-market internet providers. 

Unable to get licenses, some networks rely on unlicensed spectrum bandwidth, which operates at lower strengths and makes it difficult to expand the network, Rantanen explained. “One of our towers uses all the unlicensed spectrum available to the public. If we want to put anything new up, we either have to license something — which is very impossible to do as a tribe — or pull something down and put something up in its place.” As of Feb. 24, according to Buell, at least 205 applications had received licenses for spectrum through the Tribal Priority Window. 

Build a longterm team

Crucial to the success of these networks are people who physically maintain the internet connectivity longterm by performing technical maintenance, running business operations within the network, and acting as advocates for policy, funding, and more. “The technical aspect is often simple, not that hard or complex,” Buell explained. “Equipment can be bought off the shelf, even on Amazon… the hard part is building the human network to run it.” This is where community advocates become the equivalent of CEOs, or programs like the Tribal Digital Village form to head logistics. 

The power (and efficiency) of local knowledge  

The Internet Society’s 2019 Indigenous connectivity project helped construct the first community network in Hawaii, operated out of the Hawaiian village of Pu‘uhonua o Waimānalo. The project began with six weeks of preplanning, including training in various community network models, fiber installation, and cyber security, and was followed by a two-and-a-half-day installation project and training for residents to operate a new, local broadband network. 

Buell explained that site surveys by native Hawaiians spotted technical issues a normal survey would’ve missed — dense foliage during the rainy season would block the tower’s line of sight, and seasonal thunderstorms would knock out equipment if backup power supplies weren’t in place. The towers were moved around for visibility and back up generators were installed to account for harsh weather.

Part of the self-determined Nation of Hawaii, the village has since doubled the size of its network and is looking to offer its services to Hawaiian residents outside of their village. Advocates are also working on a project for the other (dry) side of the island, where the Pu‘uhonua o Waimānalo considerations aren’t necessary. “It’s just a 45-minute drive between the two projects, but they’re very different,” Buell noted. 

Residents of Pu‘uhonua o Waimānalo worked hands on to build the state's first community network.

Residents of Pu‘uhonua o Waimānalo worked hands on to build the state’s first community network.

Six weeks of planning went into the two-and-a-half-day network build, including technical training for residents.

Six weeks of planning went into the two-and-a-half-day network build, including technical training for residents.

Rantanen said the same dynamic was vital to the early TDVNet project. About 20 participants from a local youth program called Summer Youth Academy scouted out the best spots for towers and cables themselves. “They went around from peak to peak on reservation and identified the best way to get from one reservation to the next, placing towers for wireless line of sight,” Rantanen said. One of those volunteers, Joseph Peralta, is now Rantanen’s lead technician.

Buell says the fault of mass market models is that the “characteristics and nuances of communities can be missed.” That’s a serious problem in communities who already have a history of being ignored by power holders. For both Rantanen and Buell, the benefit of community-built networks is that they’re rooted in hyperlocal knowledge. The people using and providing the internet service are in direct communication, and can respond or prepare for service issues and infrastructure needs more efficiently. 

The relationship between public, private, and locally-owned Internet

In the grand scheme of things, federal support — either through direct funding or free spectrum bandwidth licensing — is necessary to fully rectify the unequal distribution of internet access. But that doesn’t mean community-ran networks have to disappear to get those resources. 

When Rantanen first started, he was firmly on the side of federal involvement. “Why don’t the carriers come in? Why can’t we force [carriers] to serve reservations? The government should be leaning on these companies to do this,” he remembered thinking. Now that he’s spent 20 years witnessing what actually works, he’s changed his mind: “I don’t think that’s the solution anymore. I think the tribes benefit if there is a choice… Obviously, multiple players in a market drive the price down and create a competitive market space, which gives you better opportunities as a consumer,” he explained. 

Rantanen is hinting at the idea of open-access networks — multiple internet service providers that share the same physical network to offer a range of choices to the consumer. Ideally, the physical networks are built by local municipalities (or Indigenous communities), and run by public or private providers.  

National research and advocacy group the Institute for Self Reliance runs the Community Broadband Network, an initiative providing resources for the building of “democratic” internet networks. According to the organization’s view, the “ideal” market is based on multiple, competing physical networks, some run by local communities and others in the private sector, that keep internet options open and inexpensive — aiming for services around $10 per month for underserved communities. As the organization writes:

The optimal solution is not one great network but rather a series of overlapping networks, much like the Internet itself…  We believe communities should embrace solutions that fit with local culture rather than simply trying to import a model that worked well elsewhere. We have concerns about locating too much power in state capitals or D.C. — we believe the best solutions distribute power as locally as possible.

Community networks can serve as a redistribution of power into the hands of the community. Even deeper, operating a community network supports a larger claim for Indigenous peoples: sovereignty. “I think it’s really a huge benefit for a tribe and the tribal government,” Buell said. “Because they are sovereign nations, if they have the capacity to manage their own telecommunication services… they can control how they communicate, they can increase or decrease the opportunities for their people. They can do all kinds of different things that they control on their own.” 

Source: Faced with limited resources, Indigenous communities built their own internet. Here’s how.

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