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

And all that works at the “last mile” — installing or upgrading antennas and cables connecting homes and businesses — is only part of the story. There is also the “middle way”—the infrastructure that small networks need to feed their data into the international telecommunications backbone. For Blackfeet, this will involve updating that local exchange in Browning and connecting it to a shipping hub serving all of North America and the world.

“Medium fiber is missing,” said Matthew Rantanen, co-chair of technology and telecommunications for the National Congress of American Indians. “We did the math, took maps from carriers and tribesmen, worked with GIS people and anchor organizations — there are about 8,000 miles missing in the 48 Lower states, 1,800 in California alone. It’s a billion dollar problem of its own in just Lower 48”.

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

Unfortunately, not every tribe can make the most of these funds. “A lot of the tribes didn’t ask for money,” says Rantanen. “Some tribes are very advanced, and some have no manpower. Or they gave writers who don’t know how to think about technology trying to write tech grants.”

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

“Price is going up. The money won’t go as far as it used to.”

Mike Sheard, Siyeh Communications

Yarn projects are congested in the global supply chain. Major media companies like AT&T and Verizon have been buying every cable pallet they can find. That leaves projects as small as those booked in India to wait 60 weeks or more to fill orders. Many people have had to apply for an exemption for the spending deadline.

Mike Sheard, president of Siyeh Communications, the company set up to oversee the new telecommunications exchange on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, said: “The federal government has misappropriated more than $60 billion for broadband and other services. The supplier knows it. “Price is going up. The money won’t go as far as it used to.”

While Rantanen says federal broadband funding probably won’t be enough to dig fiber-optic loops for every tribe, a clever planning department could lay a lot of cable while rebuilding a single tribe. subsidized roads or waterline replacements supported by the Infrastructure Act.

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