Broadband funding for indigenous communities could finally connect some of America’s most isolated places.

And all that “last mile” work—installing or upgrading antennas and cables that connect homes and businesses—is only part of the story. There is also the “middle mile” – the infrastructure needed by small networks to transfer their data to the international telecommunications backbone. For Blackfeet, this will mean upgrading the local telephone exchange in Browning and connecting it to a transport hub serving all of North America and the world.

“There is no middle mile fiber,” says Matthew Rantanen, co-chairman of the National Congress of American Indians for Technology and Telecommunications. “We did the math, got maps from carriers and tribes, worked with GIS people and anchor agencies—about 8,000 missing miles in the bottom 48 states, 1,800 in California alone. This is a billion dollar problem in itself in the Lower 48 alone.”

Work to be done

Since the introduction of the CARES Act in mid-2020, which would have spent a billion dollars by December 2021, tribes have struggled to assimilate the opportunity. Buying Blackfeet from a local exchange was one of the few things that could have been done in a timely manner.

Unfortunately, not every tribe was able to take full advantage of these funds. “Many tribes didn’t ask for money,” Rantanen says. “Some tribes are very advanced, and some have no personnel. Or they have grant writers who don’t know what to think about technology when trying to write technical grants.”

And now costs are rising due to inflation, among other factors.

“Prices are rising. The money won’t go as far as it did.”

Mike Sherd, Siyeh Communications

Fiber projects suffer from a bottleneck in the global supply chain. Big communications players like AT&T and Verizon are buying every cable they can find. This forces small projects, like those on Indian reservations, to wait 60 weeks or more to fulfill orders. Many had to seek the abolition of the timing of spending funds.

“The federal government has committed more than $60 billion to broadband, and providers know it,” says Mike Sheard, president of Siyeh Communications, a corporation formed to oversee a new telecommunications station on the Blackfoot Indian Reservation. “Prices are rising. The money won’t go as far as it did.”

While Rantanen says federal broadband funding likely won’t be enough to lay fiber optic rings for every tribe, a smart planning department could lay a lot of cable when rehabilitating a subsidized road or replacing an Infrastructure Act-supported water line.

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