The rolls of fiber-optic cable currently unwinding in a remote corner of northwest Montana represent a vital, long-overdue change for the region.
Rural and Native communities in the US have long had lower rates of cellular and broadband connectivity than urban areas, where four out of every five Americans live. Outside the cities and suburbs, which occupy barely 3% of US land, reliable internet service can still be hard to come by. For decades, people who live in places like the Blackfeet Indian Reservation have made do with low bandwidth delivered through obsolete copper wires, or simply gone without.
The covid-19 pandemic underscored the problem as Native communities locked down and moved school and other essential daily activities online. But it also kicked off an unprecedented surge of relief funding to solve it.
Now many Blackfeet and other Native communities face a different kind of problem: figuring out how to spend the billions of dollars in US federal funds they’ve received to catch up or even leap ahead. That’s not as easy as it sounds. Antiquated networks need to be upgraded. Vast distances mean technologies like 5G aren’t always good options. And costs are soaring.
Still, it means some parts of the country that have long been cut off from the internet are finally coming online. This summer, brand-new black fiber-optic cables have started to unfurl across the Blackfeet Reservation. Over the next five years, that fiber will bring service to at least 4,500 homes, businesses, and institutions.
“For some parts of the reservation, we’re getting service for the first time,” says Mel Yawakie, a vice president for engineering with Turtle Island Communications, who is helping install the new fiber-optic links. “We’re not talking about bells and whistles. This is foundational.”
The Blackfeet Reservation is among the least peopled areas in the Lower 48 states. Home to 10,000 people, it has a population density of just 4.5 persons per square mile, which offers almost twice the elbow room of Montana as a whole. Blizzards routinely blow humps of snow 50 feet wide across the roads, isolating villages for days.
Covid imposed a different kind of isolation. Those most at risk from the virus were elderly people, who are also some of the last living speakers of traditional languages, keepers of oral histories, and pillars of social and spiritual organizations. One tribal leader likened any elder’s death to “a library burning down.”
The Blackfeet considered the pandemic threat so serious that they used their sovereign authority to close their reservation to all nonessential visitors for a year. That meant shutting half the entrances to Glacier National Park—eliminating the tourist economy that many depend on. The tribal government also ordered a reservation-wide lockdown and mask mandates.
Almost overnight, virtually all interaction across a landscape larger than the state of Delaware went virtual. Epidemiologically, the drastic tactics worked. But that isolation spotlighted the frailty of the local telecom structure.
A 2022 broadband availability map shows that 658 locations were served on the Blackfeet Reservation, with 3,235 sites remaining unserved. Many Blackfeet homes shelter multiple generations under one roof. On average, each home with internet access has 17 devices online at once—which adds up to a lot more traffic than the existing reservation network can handle.
The problem is especially acute for students, according to Sandi Campbell, principal of a public school in Heart Butte, and it made virtual schooling a massive challenge. “We have some families that have the highest amount of bandwidth they can get and the kids still don’t have what they really need,” says Campbell.
That could soon change thanks to the federal investments. Tucked into the 2020 CARES Act, which provided the first US federal pandemic relief money, was $1 billion earmarked for broadband infrastructure improvements on Indian reservations.
Then the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) of 2021 provided $20 billion specifically for Native American tribes’ covid response; $520 million of that went to Montana’s eight reservations. ARPA also released $17 billion specifically for nationwide broadband improvements, available to any local government. While that wasn’t earmarked for tribal use, tribes could compete for funding along with cities, counties, and similar jurisdictions.
Next, the 2022 Infrastructure Act designated another $2 billion for a Tribal Broadband Connectivity Fund. Each of the 574 federally recognized tribes will receive a minimum of $500,000 for internet improvements, plus the opportunity to request more. By August 2022, dozens of tribal organizations had been approved for awards totaling $146 million.
Finally, in August, the US Department of Agriculture released another $400 million in telecommunications project grants for rural and tribal communities nationwide.
Between all these funding sources, the Blackfeet Tribe has received at least $30 million to upgrade its telecommunications infrastructure. Several initiatives are already underway.
One of the Blackfeet Tribe’s first moves was to spend $7.5 million from its CARES Act allocation to take over the telephone and internet exchange in the town of Browning—a central collection of switches and equipment that all telecommunications traffic on the reservation passes through—from a regional telecommunications cooperative. The co-op had previously upgraded 22 of its 25 rural telephone exchanges in Montana to fiber-optic service. But the exchange serving the Blackfeet reservation still relied on copper wires and 1980s-grade transfer switches.
With local control of the exchange and money available for upgrades, the tribe’s next challenge was to figure out what technology would best serve its residents.
Back to basics
Given their remoteness, the Blackfeet may seem like good candidates for experimental technologies designed to deliver internet service to rural areas. Part of the reason so many Native communities have been left behind in the fiber rollout is they just don’t have enough customers. Commercial internet providers can’t justify the cost of expanding services to reach them—one recent broadband project completed on Montana tribal lands cost about $18,000 per client served.
If new technologies could lower that cost, companies might be more willing to deliver service there. Over the years, tech companies and entrepreneurs have touted high-altitude balloons, solar-powered drones, and satellite constellations to do just that.
Today, though, broadband consultants dismiss most of those options. 5G provides amazing cellular data service but is often transmitted using higher-frequency radio waves that don’t travel as far as conventional cell signals. High-orbit geosynchronous communications satellites operate 22,000 miles above Earth’s surface, resulting in more than 100 milliseconds of lag—too long for videoconferencing. Low-earth-orbit satellite systems like Starlink orbit closer at 200 to 500 miles up, but they currently don’t have sufficient coverage across the northern latitudes, and they suffer from peak-use congestion and weather interference. A partnership announced in August by Starlink and T-Mobile to bring cell-phone service to dead zones in North America only promised to support text messages by the end of 2023.
What would work for the Blackfeet is a fiber ring—a web of fiber-optic cables running underground to connect homes to each other and to the Browning exchange, which would then transfer that data to the rest of the world. Each cable, about as thick as your thumb, threads enough glass filament together to deliver up to 10 gigabits of data per second to and from 288 households. Right now, Blackfeet households receive at most around 25 megabits of data per second for downloads and 3 megabits for uploads. It takes at least 3 megabits just to stream a Netflix movie in high definition.
The fiber won’t reach everyone, but it doesn’t really need to. In some places, cell towers can deliver internet service via microwaves to households at the ends of long dirt roads. Antennas can deliver half-gigabit data speeds to multiple houses at once—not as good as fiber, but still better than what many on the reservation have now. And delivering internet service over the air is much cheaper—it costs about $1,000 per household, while laying fiber costs $40,000 to $80,000 per mile.
In many rural places, that cost tips the scales in favor of installing antennas over fiber. “If we run a mile of cable for $60,000 to serve four customers, how long will it take to get [a] return on investment?” says Godfrey Enjady, president of the National Tribal Telecom Association, which recently held a major planning conference on use of federal broadband programs on reservations.
With fiber in high demand, microwave antennas are now more readily available on American suppliers’ shelves. But they aren’t perfect. Even at top speeds, the latency, or gap between packets of data, runs 30 to 70 milliseconds for microwave antennas. Fiber, in comparison, has a latency of 1 to 2 milliseconds.
And all that work at the “last mile”—installing or upgrading the antennas and cables that link up homes and businesses—is only part of the story. There’s also the “middle mile”—the infrastructure that small networks need to feed their data into the international telecommunications backbone. For the Blackfeet, this would involve updating that local exchange in Browning and hooking it up to a carrier hub servicing all of North America and the world.
“The middle-mile fiber is missing,” says Matthew Rantanen, technology and telecommunications cochairman of the National Congress of American Indians. “We did the math, got maps from carriers and tribes, worked with the GIS folks and anchor institutions—there’s about 8,000 missing miles in the Lower 48 states, 1,800 just in California. That’s a billion-dollar problem on its own just in the Lower 48.”
Work to be done
Since the rollout of the CARES Act in mid-2020, with its initial deadline to have billions of dollars spent by December 2021, tribes have scrambled to digest the opportunity. The Blackfeet’s purchase of the local exchange was one of the few things that could be completed in a timely fashion.
Unfortunately, not every tribe has been able to take as much advantage of these funds. “A lot of tribes didn’t apply for the money,” says Rantanen. “Some tribes are very advanced, and some have zero personnel. Or they have grant writers who don’t know how to think about technology trying to write tech grants.”
And now, costs are going up because of inflation, among other factors.
Fiber projects suffer from a bottleneck in the global supply chain. Major communication players like AT&T and Verizon have been buying every pallet of cable they can find. That leaves small projects like those on Indian reservations waiting 60 weeks or more to fill orders. Many had to seek waivers for the spending deadline.
“The federal government appropriated over $60 billion for broadband, and the vendors know that,” says Mike Sheard, president of Siyeh Communications, the corporation created to oversee the new telecom exchange on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. “Prices are getting bid way up. The money won’t go as far as it did.”
While Rantanen says federal broadband funding likely won’t be enough to dig fiber rings for every tribe, a clever planning department can lay a lot of cable while rebuilding a subsidized road or replacing an Infrastructure Act–supported water line.
Thanks to timing and persistence, the Blackfeet were able to get most of the fiber supplies they need for now. Completing their initial last-mile upgrades will take time, since every proposed foot of underground fiber requires an archaeological assessment to ensure that no cultural or historic resources would be disturbed.
Sheard’s office has a map on the wall of the landscape between Browning, the tribal government seat, and a tributary known as Two Medicine River.
“That’s the last copper hub here,” he says of the sprinkling of homes and ranches along a two-lane road that cuts across the reservation’s midsection. “We want to get the fiber along there and then to Heart Butte and back to Browning. Our goal is to be on par with the rest of the world.”
On the Blackfeet Reservation, the brush with covid-19 crystalized the value of a community’s internal connections—the links between elders, teachers, parents, children, and colleagues. Now its residents hope having a modern communications network will provide them a stronger link to the rest of the world.
This article was supported by the Heising-Simons Foundation, a family foundation based in San Francisco and Los Altos, California, that works to advance sustainable solutions in climate and clean energy, enable groundbreaking research in science, enhance the education of our youngest learners, and support human rights for all people.
It was published through MIT Technology Review’s covid inequality fellowships supporting journalism focused on the pandemic’s disparate impacts. For more on this topic, read about the racial disparities of long covid and what the pandemic meant for Black women at risk of domestic violence.
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