Internet Connectivity in Indigenous Communities (Episode 34)

Internet Connectivity in Indigenous Communities (Episode 34)
Christopher Mitchell: Hey Matt. Can you give me a sense of how many people living in Indian country have broadband access? Matthew Rantanen: At the Tribal Digital Village, which is 19 tribes in Southern California, just about 40% of our reservation homes have access to our broadband network, and there is roughly 3100 homes on the reservation about population of 9,000-ish, and the FCC actually says that 40% across the country have access to broadband services, but I’d love to challenge that figure based on just the knowledge I have of other reservations and working with tribes on connectivity issues. There’s a lot of holes in that thought process. Christopher Mitchell: And Hannah, I’m curious. You really dig into what the FCC does on this. How much faith should we give the FCC numbers? Hannah Trostle: The FCC numbers likely highly overstate how many people actually have internet access. Reservations are primarily located in rural areas, which have larger census blocks. The FCC looks at things on the census block level. As soon as one person has access within a census block, they consider the entire census block and everyone within it to have access, so that’s the problem with the statistics. Matthew Rantanen: The number one reason we do not get access to federal grant money is because the census blocks misrepresent who has access to broadband and say that we’re served to areas vs unserved areas. Christopher Mitchell: Well, for people who are wondering what the FCC is, we’re gonna explain all that and more talking about broadband and how we can build local power using some of the lessons that we’re seeing from what tribes are doing around the country and what is happening in Indian country.

I’m Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and I’m hosting this episode of Building Local Power. Along with me, I’ve got Matt Rantanan, the Director of Technology for the Southern California Tribal Chairman’s Association and Director of the Tribal Digital Village Initiative. Welcome back, Matt.

Matthew Rantanen: Thank you. Christopher Mitchell: Matt and I had talked back in 2013 about what he’s doing specifically there. We’ll update that a little bit, and we will talk about other things as well, but if you really want to hear more of Matt’s voice, you can go back to those younger days of 2013.

We also have Hannah Trostle, who is a research associate and has been on this show before talking about coops. She really specializes in broadband research and focuses on rural areas. 

Hannah Trostle: Thanks for having me on the show, Chris. Christopher Mitchell: Matt, let me just throw at you as we deal with this. We were talking a little bit about the Federal Communications Commission and the statistics, but let’s start a little bit broader, and let me ask you … We can stipulate that there’s a tremendous lack of broadband access, of high-quality internet access on Indian country lands around the United States.

If we had a choice, if you could snap your fingers and either have AT&T providing a mobile broadband package in the same way they do in major US cities on all of those lands over the next year, or we had to wait a little bit longer and maybe in three or four years we see many more of these local tribal initiatives pop up where the tribes are building their own networks, how do you think those two different options would result in different outcomes? 

Matthew Rantanen: Well, typically the barrier to entry with a mobile platform provided by a national carrier is the cost. Everybody thinks that native Americans have casinos and everybody’s rich. Well, out of the 567 federally recognized tribes, there’s roughly 50 casinos, 50 tribes that game, and some of those are successful and some of them are not. Overall, the tribes are actually fairly poor, and individually much poorer than that. Looking at 50% unemployment in most situations on reservation, these people can’t afford those service plans.

The next problem with a mobile platform national carrier like that is that they all have data capacity limits, and if you’re gonna call a service broadband, I think it should come along with an unlimited data scenario, because if you’re going to monetize every megabit over your plan and add cost and make it impossible for people to do homework, to do video conferencing tutorial, such like that, there’s no point in going that route. We’d be much better off if the tribes were building networks and services to themselves.

Christopher Mitchell: Let me ask, and Hannah, you could pick this up and then we can discuss it Matt if you want to jump in. I’m curious if we can just talk a little bit about the benefits of the locally owned approaches the two of you just came back from gathering with a lot of other people at this gathering in New Mexico with the Internet Society, focused on indigenous networks. It sounds like there’s a lot of enthusiasm. What are some of the benefits that we’re seeing from the tribes building their own networks? Matthew Rantanen: You know, there’s a whole thought process behind the reservation system and the sovereign identity and the sovereign aspect of tribes, and that is self-governance. It’s been something that’s been pushed by the federal government all along. We all have our own constitutions, our own governments, structures, infrastructure, planning, residential planning, all those types of things, Environmental Protection Agency offices and such, emergency services and all, so having our own resource to the internet, providing a network to ourselves, or providing a network amongst other tribes as well, seems to go right along with the theory of self-governance and self-determination. It dictates that we are in control of the services that are being delivered to us. Christopher Mitchell: That kind of seems like the boring aspect. It makes sense philosophically, and I appreciate that, but how does it make a difference in people’s lives? Matthew Rantanen: Well, the difference it makes in people’s lives is clearly access to communications and to job research education, financial opportunities, basic entertainment. That’s obviously the more fun version of that, but having control of our own networks means that we can actually deliver services that we need vs just services that are set on some tier plan that somebody else dictates this is what you need. It’s way more beneficial to be able to control that ourselves and cater to our own communities. Hannah Trostle: When I was at the summit, a lot of folks talked about how once they had access to the internet, they started forming Facebook communities and sharing more of their content locally within the community. It encouraged sort of a revitalization of different cultural practices. Someone was talking about I think sealskin boots at one point and how suddenly all the younger generation really connected that to their actual life and connected it to their online presence. Matthew Rantanen: Yeah, so another thing that happens, well that happened in the history of the United States, is bigger groups of people were cut up into smaller groups to split them up to take away their strength, put on separate reservations. Families were split in half, especially in California. Bigger tribes were cut up into smaller reservations, three or four different reservations per tribe. Brothers were separated and families were separated, and that communication path basically is difficult, because it requires travel, transportation. And with the lack of [plenal 00:07:52] telephone service, still being at 70% penetration in Indian country, there’s still a lot of people that don’t have access to normal communication. Bringing broadband into these communities and opening up the opportunity for connectivity as much as visual, like video conference, hang-out sessions and Skype sessions and such, those opportunities give people a way back together to form those alliances again and then work above the reservation system and kind of rekindle some of that old communication path. Christopher Mitchell: Matt, you’ve been in this business for a very long time. It’s been more than 15 years of providing internet service wirelessly from the tops of ridges using solar powered and other forms of electricity generally off-grid. I don’t wanna spend too much time describing the network. What I wanna sort of establish is that you’ve really been a go-to person over the years. I think you have a good sense of what’s happening in tribes around the country. What’s an exciting network, and more importantly, what are some of the benefits that it’s driving that maybe you learn more about or just we’re reminded of at this gathering that you were just at? Matthew Rantanen: Well, one of my favorites is always referring to an IT director in the Coeur d’Alene Indian tribe, Valerie Fast Horse. She came down to the Tribal Digital Village network in early 2000s and went up to a tower with us, stood on top of one of the battery boxes, looked out over the landscape standing next to our equipment that was using 2.4 gigahertz at the time, and she just said, “Are you kidding me? You can do all this with wifi?” And then proceeded to go home, and over the last ten years has built this network called Red Spectrum that is a hybridized system between fiber and wireless that is making the Tribal Digital Village look kinda like a hobby network. That’s one of my favorite examples.

One of the best things that came out of the Santa Fe meeting, which is what happens when all of us get together on this grassroots level, is that communities that know they need this corner me at lunch, sit me down at a table with all five of their representatives, and basically have me go through a Broadband Wireless Networking for Communities 101 class in 30 minutes time, and they’re just feverishly taking notes and gathering my information, and then, “We’re gonna go home and we’re gonna start this, and we’ll call you back as soon as we hit the wall,” and I was like, “That’s one of the coolest things that happened during the Santa Fe ISOC meeting. 

Christopher Mitchell: Well, and it’s exciting that we have that because of good federal policies that allow this technology to be used unlicensed and whatnot, so it’s always worth reminding people that we have that and we need to preserve it.

Hannah, I’m curious what struck you at the Santa Fe. Was there any compelling stories about locally provisioned networks that you’d like to share with us?

Hannah Trostle: What really stuck with me was I ended up at a table with a bunch of people from Alaska, and there was one group that was actually from Canada and another group that was from Alaska. The Canadian group was like, “How is Alaska able to get this internet access? How are you actually able to build this?” They were doing an undersea fiber cable, and somehow the people in Alaska had figured out a system that would actually work to bring it to their community, whereas the Canadians were like stuck under their government and trying to get them to listen and weren’t able to do anything. Christopher Mitchell: That’s a hopeful example in a time in which I think many of us are a little bit despondent about how we compare to other nations, so I certainly … Matthew Rantanen: Right. Christopher Mitchell: Appreciate that. Hannah, you know that we’re very bullish on electric and telephone cooperatives in helping in rural America build incredible networks. Is the future as bright in the tribal areas, or does something major need to change to make sure that people have full access to technology and communications? Hannah Trostle: The thing with the telephone electric coops is that they’ve had so much support from the USDA, the US Department of Agriculture, in order to build these networks. Matthew Rantanen: We definitely need a major breakthrough. You know, it’s happening here and there, and where a tribe has a relationship with let’s say a rural coop electric company, they’ll get some inroads into connectivity to their tribal buildings, but their connectivity to their homes on reservation poses problems. Depending on your geography, depending on your weather, fiber hanging on a pole is an option in a lot of places in the United States, but where there’s high wind and stuff like that, they have issues, so some of the reservations here in Southern California happen to be in the mountains, and some of the harshest weather happens in those mountain.

Because we’re close to the coast, we get a lot of different changes in weather in the mountain regions. Some of that fiber can’t hang on poles. Digging in the ground doesn’t work, so wireless becomes the situation. Wireless is not the best deployment solution for scalability, and some of those rural coops don’t wanna get into that as an alternative. They’re typically running fiber where they already have electrical resources.

So there is an impasse. It’s not a permanent wall, but there is certainly some creative solutions that need to be kind of worked out, and it’s kind of case by case, and once we get a couple of cases that are great, I think we need to really promote their success so that other people can kind of latch onto that and maybe grow that idea.

Hannah Trostle: So Paul Bunyan Communications Coop and Leech Lake, for instance. Christopher Mitchell: In Minnesota. Matthew Rantanen: Yeah, possibly, and then Anza Valley Coop, which is in Riverside County, California. Christopher Mitchell: Which is making encroachments into your area so you’ll finally have good access in your home. Matthew Rantanen: I can see a coil of fiber on my telephone pole outside of the house. Now I just have to trench it myself, because they’re a year behind if they have to trench. They only have one trenching team, so I think I have to go trench it myself. Otherwise, if you can hang it on pole all the way to your house, you’re in the queue for within the next month. Christopher Mitchell: Hey. This is Chris. Probably the person you were just listening to, but this is me from a different time and place with a quick pitch for you.

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One of the things that we’re worried about in cities is that the rapid increase in technology and communication allowing kids that have high-quality access to learn at a much more rapid rate … They have access to more materials. They may be more inspired … In addition to the other advantages they had in the past, that paradoxically, better internet access could result in a greater divide between the have-nots and the haves. Is that something that you’re worried about on the reservations, Matt? 

Matthew Rantanen: Absolutely. It’s something that we deal with every day, especially in the education system. Kids are required to sometimes even download what their homework assignment is, let alone do the research and the work for that homework assignment online, and it’s just assumed that you have access to internet. A lot of the kids in the Southern California reservation system, I’d say probably 90% of them are bussed off reservation to go to an in-town school if you will, and that expectation from that school system is that you have access to internet.

Well, these kids get back on the bus and go back to the reservation, where they don’t have access to internet, so a lot of families are taking their only vehicle and loading up the kids, driving down to town 45 minutes to a McDonalds or a Starbucks, and sitting there and poaching internet so they can download the homework assignment and then sometimes perform that homework assignment, and then come back home where that vehicle could be used for someone that is bringing money into the household through work, or it could be used for other sources of success for that family, and it’s being tied up just dragging kids back and forth to do internet access.

Christopher Mitchell: This is a show about building local power, and I think it’s pretty obvious how internet access and then access to education and access to economic development is important to that, but one of the things that’s often overlooked is cultural power and a sense of representation, and one of the things that I’ve certainly been more aware of as a white male is the way in which I’m constantly fed all kinds of things, that most of the movie stars are white and male, speak English as a first language, and I’m learning more about the importance of cultural representation for others.

I think the reaction from the African American community from the Black Panther trailers is incredible. Matt, I know that you and Hannah are both very big into this comic book universe. At the Santa Fe, you were there at the same time as an Indigenous Comic Con event, and I’m curious if you can just talk a little bit about the importance of those sorts of things, that cultural power, in terms of building local power within historically marginalized communities.

I wanna turn to Hannah first while Matt can think about what he wants to say.

Matthew Rantanen: The Indigenous Comic Con, this was the second year of it. Each year I have missed it, even this time. I was staying with a friend, and they did not have time to drive me over to the casino where it was being held. Christopher Mitchell: Well, now I feel like a real jerk, ’cause I thought this was like something you got to do while you traveled. Matthew Rantanen: No, but I was really, really excited. I bought tickets and was gonna go, ’cause every time I go to the Chicago Comic Con, I really recognize that I am out of place there, but the Indigenous Comic Con, it’s been put together by a lot of different native women, like I can think of Johnny Jay for instance, and it’s just very, very exciting for me personally. Christopher Mitchell: Matt you look like a super hero already, for people who aren’t familiar. What do you think about the importance of representation in media in this genre? Matthew Rantanen: This is epic, actually. I’m a 23-year veteran of the San Diego Comic Con, and watched that thing turn into the monstrosity that it is today. I’ve been to both of the … the very first and then this year’s Indigenous Comic Con, and I have to say it is an amazing opportunity for native artists and native writers and native creators to take their origin stories and their history and kind of create the popular art myths and storytelling aspects of their community like we see in the Marvel Universe and the DC Universe today. We actually have a tribal owned print company, and we took that print company to both the Comic Cons and set up a table and just wanted to support them in their efforts to create these awesome stories and illustrate these brilliant characters.

We have had a great relationship with all of the artists there. The Comic Book Convention creator, Dr Lee Francis III, has worked with many creative, inspirational people and has an amazing team of folks to put this thing together, and the stories that I see coming out of this, and the excitement that little kids and even adults have when they walk through the show floor and they see and recognize a character from stories that their grandparents told them when they were little kids about how their culture came about and how their people explain the sun and explain rain and explain things like that and explain the creation story, it’s just super cool to see, and there’s so much enthusiasm and excitement. So many artists, so much opportunity, there was some amazing comics to film stars there, to interact with tribal youth and tribal people, to just kind of tie that whole world together, it’s a magical experience.

But I love it. I’m a Comic Con geek, and seeing the core of the indigenous community being able to create and just get the stories out there visually is just phenomenal. 

Christopher Mitchell: That would be a wonderful place to end if I didn’t have one more question that I just really wanna put to you Matt, since you do have this long experience of running an ISP connecting the many tribes in San Diego County. Do you have a sense of how it’s different between you vs if like AT&T was running the same network in terms of creating opportunities for people to learn skills in an area in which I think they often don’t necessarily have that? Matthew Rantanen: The big difference, obviously, is just the sheer massive corporation behind the AT&T effort, and I say that for a couple different reasons. One of ’em is its unlimited resources essentially for build-out, where we’re very restricted on budget. One of our hardest problems is quality of service of the network, and it has to do with uptime, and most of that has to do with solar power. I don’t see like a network that was deployed by an AT&T or an incumbent Telco having the similar issues and just throw money at the problem.

The other thing I see is that big corporations like that make decisions based on their corporate environments, not on the cultural environment of the community, so I think the network, weird enough that equipment can behave differently, but the architecture and the thought process behind the network would be different than the thought process and the architecture the way we design it.

We’re trying to be all-inclusive. They’re looking for low-hanging fruit and lowest cost to entry. We are also trying to be mindful of cost, but at the same time, if there is a home that’s off the beaten path and we have to generate some other piece of architecture to capture that home, we’re gonna do that, because that’s how we as a community work. I think that might be the two differences that most obvious.

Christopher Mitchell: It’s really insightful. I’m curious about one additional thing related, and that’s do you have a sense of your training people in ways that, because you’re locally owned, you can do in a unique way that they may not have opportunities if this was a different operation? Matthew Rantanen: Yeah. I’d say it’s a more personal approach. If you’re in a remote community and you happen to have one service person from your incumbent Telco, you might get to know them, but the people that work for our group are all tribal, and they are from the community in the most part, so there’s a relationship there already, prior to actually being a part of this, so there is a familiarity there and a sense of community, and there’s a different sense of community with some of the folks that are actually on the reservations that are getting service. They’re entitled to more of an ownership thought process behind their work every day, vs “I’m just comin’ in to clock in.” I think there’s more of a responsibility to try to make the network better. Christopher Mitchell: Matt, is there anything you recommend that people read? We usually just ask if there’s a final recommendation for a book or a movie or anything that’s culturally related. Matthew Rantanen: It’s slightly related to technology. It’s been made into a movie, and it’s about to happen. Spielberg’s directing it, but I’d say go out and read Ready Player One. Christopher Mitchell: Oh yeah. Yeah, I’m a little bit worried about the previews. I love that book. I devoured it on a vacation, and I was hungry for more. I thought his second book was pretty bad, but the movie now has me a little nervous after seeing a preview that was curiously different from what I envisioned. Matthew Rantanen: Yeah, but was Spielberg at the helm? I don’t think we’re going to be disappointed with the movie as a movie. It may not 100% represent the book, but at least I think we’ll get another fun movie that is representative an era in time probably near and dear to all our hearts growing up through that era. Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, I fully agree, and I’ll definitely be in line to see that movie very soon after it releases. Cool. Well, thank you Matt for joining us once again. Good luck, and I definitely look forward to meeting up with you to talk about whatever’s happening in the Marvel Universe when our paths cross again. Matthew Rantanen: Excellent. It’s been a pleasure. Thank you.