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

And all this “last mile” work — installing or upgrading the antennas and cables that connect homes and businesses — is only part of the story. There is also the “mid mile” – the infrastructure that small networks need to get their data into the backbone of international communications. For the Blackfeet, this could include modernizing this local Browning interchange and connecting it to a conveyor hub that serves all of North America and the world.

“The middle mile fibers are missing,” says Matthew Rantanen, co-chair of technology and communications for the National American Indian Congress. “We’ve done the math, got maps from carriers and tribes, worked with GIS people and anchor organizations—there’s about 8,000 miles missing in the lower 48 states, and only 1,800 in California. That’s a billion dollar problem on its own just in Lower 48″.

work to be done

Since the launch of the CARES Act in mid-2020, with an initial deadline to spend billions of dollars by December 2021, tribes have been quick to grasp the opportunity. Blackfeet’s purchase of the local exchange was one of the few things that could be completed in time.

Unfortunately, not every tribe was able to benefit from this money. “Not many tribes came forward for the money,” Rantanen says. “Some tribes are very advanced and some don’t have individuals. Or they have grant writers who don’t know how to think about technology trying to write technical grants.”

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

“The prices are going up. The money will not go further than I did.”

Mike Sheard, STC Communications

Fiber projects suffer from a bottleneck in the global supply chain. Big telecom players like AT&T and Verizon buy every pallet of cable they can find. This leaves small projects like those in Indian reservations waiting 60 weeks or more to fulfill orders. Many had to get waivers for the spending deadline.

“The federal government has committed more than $60 billion for broadband, and the sellers know it,” says Mike Sheard, president of Siyeh Communications, the company set up to oversee the new communications exchange at the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. “The prices are going up. The money will not go further than I did.”

While Rantanen says federal broadband funding likely won’t be enough to dig up each tribe’s fiber loops, the smart planning department could lay a lot of cable while rebuilding a subsidized road or replacing a water line backed by the Infrastructure Act.

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