San Diego tribes fight to close digital divide

Tribal Digital Village workers install a cell tower near Pala Casino/Tribal Digital Village

A recent House Subcommittee on Natural Resources on infrastructure on tribal lands found an enormous physical and digital divide. The White House and tribes nationwide are counting on the America’s Jobs Plan to close that divide. And while the plan moves through Congress, one man continues his work to make sure tribes within the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association (SCTCA) have access to broadband.

“We’re now in our 20th year working on a daily basis trying to bring more connectivity to the homes in these remote locations,” said Matthew Rantanen, director of technology for SCTCA, which covers 24 federally recognized tribes in San Diego County and the Inland Empire.

Matthew Rantanen/courtesy

Rantanen, who is of Cree, Finnish and Norwegian descent, started working with the SCTCA when they received a Hewlett Packard grant in 2001. He had previously worked in the tech industry and joined SCTCA to build their community web portals that supported resource programs and resource centers.

“Getting that connectivity was still a struggle back then, so we started building a wireless network that served 17 of the original 19 tribes (24 now),” said Rantanen, who also serves as co-chair of the Technology and Telecommunications subcommittee at the National Congress of American Indians, sits on the American Indian Policy Institute Advisory Board at Arizona State University and does business development and partnering at Arcadian Infracom.

Today, he estimates that approximately 50% of the 2,200 homes within the SCTCA have access to the Tribal Digital Village Network, a program within the SCTCA to bring internet services to member tribes, and roughly 400 have been connected – that’s about 20%.

What will it take to cover the other 80%? “We’ve always been short on ‘boots on the ground,” added Rantanen. “There’s a couple factors there – one of them is funding to support full time staff to be able to do that.” There are currently four staff members who work to keep the network running, while also connecting new homes.

As of 2019, Native American Californians had the lowest amount of access to broadband internet of any California demographic, 4% lower than the statewide average. Imperial County had 10.5% lower access to broadband internet than the state as a whole.

And in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, demand for broadband has never been higher. “There has never been a better marketing campaign for broadband in your home than COVID-19,” Rantanen said.

As Riverside and San Diego County schools moved to virtual learning, the waiting list for broadband access increased to 300 homes overnight.

“I think we definitely have a new awareness of the value of a broadband connection in the home,” Rantanen continued, “and then the valuation of how that fits into a family budget, how much do they need to be able to operate and then time management online.”

While trying to connect homes, Rantanen had to figure out how to work within COVID-19 safety protocols (he coordinated with the tribal utilities staff). The school districts also distributed Verizon hotspots to the households that were not yet connected, but that posed a problem because cellular service is unavailable in large areas of the reservation. One school district employee drove around looking for areas where the hotspots would work, then distributed them.

Then, there was an issue of access to devices as certain grades didn’t receive Chromebooks distributed by the school districts. So Rantanen worked with the San Diego Foundation and the California Emerging Technologies Fund to provide 1,000 laptops for those who needed them. Some tribes were able to use CARES Act funding to purchase laptops for their students.

The COVID-19 pandemic magnified the issues of broadband access on reservations and, after the world returns to pre-pandemic life, those issues of connectivity will remain. Rantanen, suggests the following to help solve the problem:

  • Prioritize bringing fiber into more regions of California. That will require fiber in rural areas that service small populations. According to Rantanen, “If you want California to compete at that world level like our economy does and our agriculture does and our manufacturing does, then you’re going to have to be there with broadband, otherwise we’ll lose those other industries because of the broadband being lost as well.”
  • Make sure tribes are at the table when decisions are being made that affect tribes. Tribal representation is important when making decisions in all areas of infrastructure, including broadband.
  • State funding is key. There are 109 tribes in California and even though tribes are overseen by the federal government, Rantanen says, “We exist here and here’s where the network should be so it should integrate into the local resources and the regional resources and the state resources.”

Rantanen says that, even though some of the reservations are an hour from the beach or urban areas, the issue of broadband access remains a priority. “It doesn’t matter how close you are to population, as soon as you step on a reservation, that should be classified as rural or underserved or unserved because of the sheer lack of resources that cross that sovereign border.”

— By Nadine Ono for California Forward where this article first appeared.

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