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COVID Relief Helps Tribes Bring Broadband To Some Montana Reservations

Aaron Bolton

About three quarters of Montanans have broadband access. But that access is less prevalent in rural parts of Montana, which are home to the state’s seven Indian reservations. Federal coronavirus relief funding is helping some tribes to build their own wireless broadband networks, shrinking the stark digital divide on reservations.

Chuck Reese is driving up a rugged gravel road along Pistol Creek on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

On top of a small mountain, between St. Ignatius and Arlee, sits a 180-foot cell tower. Reese, who is the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes infrastructure administrator, says in the coming months it will help broadcast wireless high-speed internet over roughly 80 percent of the reservation.

"To give you an idea, we’re bringing fiber optic right in here too, all the way up this mountain. This is first class connectivity."

Reese says the tribes’ wireless network will allow public school and college students to fully participate in online education and give residents access to telehealth visits with providers. It will even deliver connectivity into tribal police vehicles.

"So that they can go to an e-ticketing system and a fully mobile 911 system"
CSKT’s network is made possible by a Federal Communications Commission program. In February, the FCC offered free wireless spectrum licenses to tribes across the U.S. to try to narrow the digital divide in Indian Country. That spectrum is capable of broadcasting high-speed internet on reservations like the Flathead.

Nearly half of those living on the reservation have no access to high-speed internet and none of the internet services on the reservation are considered affordable. That’s according to Broadband Now, an internet service data aggregation company.

Editor in Chief Tyler Cooper says, "Less than one percent, so 0.7 percent, has access to a wired, low price plan. If you look at something more robust, like fiber, only 20 percent have access to something like that."

These tribally controlled networks could provide affordable and free internet access on reservations across the country. So gaining access to the free spectrum to set them up is a big deal for tribal communities.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel explains that spectrum like this is typically auctioned off for top-dollar to private companies.

"That’s because it has this nice mix of capacity for broadband, and propagation, which means it travels long distances."

Still, tribes will face barriers in building out these networks. While the spectrum is free, the infracture to turn it into usable wireless broadband network isn’t. For example, CSKT has set aside $8 million for its project.

"To make the equipment on those towers really robust, you need a healthy amount of power to them, and strong fiber."

Geoff Blackwell is with Amerind Risk Management, a Native-owned insurance company. Blackwell is also the former head of the FCC’s Office of Native Affairs and Policy. He says the buildout for these networks can cost hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars. That’s why many tribes didn’t initially apply for the spectrum program back in February, but after Congress allocated $8 billion in federal coronavirus relief funding to tribes across the country in March, the FCC received over 400 applications from tribes Many, including some in Montana, set aside that relief money for these broadband projects.

Within 5 years, tribes are required to have their infrastructure up and running in order to maintain their new spectrum license. Blackwell says the FCC’s timeline could be tight for some tribes, but gives credit to the agency for providing tribes access to free spectrum.

"It’s important they took this step for broadband purposes, but also utilizing a mechanism that recognizes that placing tribal nations themselves in the center of the regulatory process has a chance of significant success."

Blackwell says the FCC will need to make more spectrum available to tribes in the future to really shrink the digital divide in Indian Country.

Applications were put in by tribes on all seven Indian reservations in Montana. But for some like the Fort Peck Indian Community, the funding didn’t work out.

Fort Belknap Reservation did take on the program. IT specialist Donald Long Knife says some homes there still use dial up. He says the tribes’ new network will fill a huge gap in high-speed service

"Our local carrier is Triangle. They provided high speed fiber to the home and businesses here on the Agency area on the northern part of the reservation, but not to our southern parts."

Back on the Flathead Indian Reservation, infrastructure administrator Chuck Reese says the Salish and Kootenai tribes are on track to begin delivering some broadband by Dec. 31.

"This just furthers the Tribe's independence as far being able to distribute our own network connectivity how we see necessary."

He says that independence is crucial because it will provide modern day internet speeds to residents long neglected by commercial internet providers.

Copyright 2020 Montana Public Radio

Aaron is Montana Public Radio's Flathead reporter.