How tribes in Northern California are working to close the digital divide
Tribal governments in Humboldt County, California have become their own internet service providers, providing a potential model for other rural areas seeking to give more families broadband access.
In a remote corner of Northern California, class at Jack Norton and Orleans elementary schools has been taking place on paper. Virtual school is not an option for many of the Humboldt County families living along the Klamath River, which is a main means of transportation for some.
Teachers assemble two weeks worth of work into packets, and students come and pick them up.
If families don’t show up, teachers drive down Highway 169, a two lane road that snakes along the Klamath River, taking detours up winding dirt roads to deliver their two dimensional classroom. Kids who have internet access can attend one hour of instruction on Zoom (even in the town of Orleans, where broadband exists, it’s not fast enough to support an entire household’s internet needs). Class is staggered, with each grade receiving one hour of instruction.
Karen Cole, the principal of the two schools, mentions that her sister, a teacher in Eugene, Oregon, has been able to provide four hours of instruction each day via Zoom.
“She says, ‘my kids are learning.’ But we don’t have that luxury. So we’re kind of piecing together a program that can be kind of virtual, kind of on your own,” says Cole, who also has friends along the coast, in other towns, other states, where remote schooling has been viable, thanks to internet access.
The region where Cole works is home to three Native American tribes: the Karuk, Yurok and Hoopa. And while the topography of the region is beautiful, it also poses a problem to the viability of a crucial utility in the modern age: internet access.
Like many rural areas in the United States, communities along the Klamath River have struggled to get internet. Providing broadband to sparsely populated regions, where there are rolling landscapes and patchworks of protected lands, is costly.
But as the pandemic hit California, and life moved online, the necessity of a digital connection became more apparent. Internet access now determines whether or not children can attend school, parents can work and local governments can function.
Tired of waiting for companies to build the fiber optic cables or towers necessary to make broadband accessible to their community, the three tribes have been taking matters into their own hands, becoming their own internet service providers, and using grants and CARES Act funding to doggedly expand infrastructure.
“The tribes are having to do this out of necessity, because the providers have been getting funding to do these build-outs and never have,” Jessica Engle, the IT director for the Yurok Tribe, said.
A long-standing problem
The digital divide has been a problem for years in the United States, especially on tribal lands, where the federal government has a history of failing to deliver on its promises. In the contiguous U.S., only 56.9% of tribal lands had access to high-speed internet as of 2018, according to a recent report from the Institute for Local Self Reliance.
The tribal governments in Northern California face a unique set of challenges in providing that service.
Many areas still do not have access to electricity, although the Yurok have been working to build infrastructure for that as well. “A good section of the reservation just got power,” Engle said. “And there are still homes without power. Our HR director is just outside of where the power lines went to. So their home is completely on generator power, which is not unusual for tribal homes.”
Engle said that providers of internet service have to consider everything from lack of widespread power sources to geography to wildfires, which have become all too frequent in California.
For example, the Yurok tribe is currently relying on towers to provide broadband to some areas. But when redwood trees grow taller, they can block the point to point signal. Most of the towers are off the grid, powered by solar energy and equipped with a backup generator.
The source of their broadband connection also can present problems: it comes from Crescent City, a city farther north on the coast, and is transmitted 18 miles through the air over the sea to a tower on the reservation. A particularly heavy rain and high waves can interfere with the connection on the reservation.
“There’s a lot about broadband and how it relates to power and the reasons why providers haven’t been doing build outs,” Engle told me over the phone.
She understands why companies have been reticent to undertake a costly and difficult infrastructure process. At the same time, Engle says those companies have received a good share of incentives and offsets from state and federal funds to do just that, “but they invested into the areas that are most populated, which is not the rural areas.”
Why the problem persists
A few private companies own and operate the majority of broadband infrastructure, according to a Brookings Institute 2020 report on the importance of digital prosperity.
The authors of the report note that a lack of financial incentive is the primary obstacle to providing Wi-Fi access to sparsely populated areas. “If private business calculations and risk assessments suggest their investments will not lead to a return for their public or private shareholders, then it’s the business’ fiduciary duty to not invest in those places.”
There are federal incentives for companies to build in less profitable, more rural areas, but these programs can be difficult to enforce.
A spokesperson for Frontier Communications, one of the companies that received funding through the FCC’s Connect America Fund and missed some of their deadlines, wrote via email that “Under FCC rules, Frontier has until Dec. 31, 2021, to finish construction,” and had “been significantly affected by previous permitting delays on tribal lands and the numerous logistical challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic, including local government lockdowns, curfews, and state and tribal office closures.”
States also have grants and special funds designated for broadband expansion, as well as tax deductions.
But like so many massive infrastructure projects, it takes a lot of money to truly fix the problem. Some broadband expansion funds were included in the recently signed American Rescue Plan, which provides $94 billion toward expanding internet access, according to The Washington Post.
And while new sources of funding may help Americans in the future, for now, many in rural areas have had to endure the pandemic without access.
Rather than be entirely subject to the conflicting constraints and uncertainties of private businesses, tribal governments in the Humboldt County area have been working for the past decade on solving the problem of internet access themselves.
The Karuk tribe launched its own ISP (internet service provider) called Áan Chúuphan (which translates to ‘talking line’) in 2015.
The tribe built a tower to serve Orleans, an unincorporated community on the Klamath River, using funds granted through the USDA Rural Development Community Connect Program.
“That’s providing very, very basic internet service to the community. It’s still not considered high speed by the modern standards, but it’s better than what they had,” Eric Cutright, the chief information officer for the Karuk Tribe, said. “We want to increase the speeds to get it closer to what you can get in the cities and we want to build in some redundancy to the system. Because out in the National Forest, we have forest fires, we have floods, we have rock slides” that can take down traditional lines easily.
While they’ve been able to provide service in some areas, many homes and buildings are still without Wi-Fi. Engle and Cutright are also frank about the shortcomings of the current system. “The speeds that you get in Orleans are what people used to get in the ’90s,” Cutright said.
That’s why the Karuk and Yurok tribes have partnered to work on a more ambitious project: the Klamath River Rural Broadband Initiative, which would run a 104 miles of fiber optic cable through northern Humboldt County. They hope it will provide broadband service to over 600 households and 170 businesses, government offices and health care facilities.
“We’re trying to serve people that have just been left behind,” Cutright said. “The problems that these rural communities face are almost always the same. We’re always lacking the infrastructure.”
The initiative would also build more towers and potentially merge the services offered by the two tribes into one entity. They’re currently in the environmental assessment stage of the project, and hope that by 2023 service will be up and running.
Meantime, the need for the service is immediate. The Karuk tribe has been working on upgrades that allow more people to get service, such as installing repeaters (devices that amplify signals), and building up the towers whose signals have been obscured by maturing redwood trees — efforts that have improved service in the town of Orleans, but still leave those outside of the current range out of luck.
Meeting those immediate needs will have far reaching consequences.
“We’re doing the best we can with distance learning, but how much are they really getting from their packets? And their one hour with their teacher?” Cole, the principal for Orleans and Jack Norton, asked.
The lack of internet has also meant a lack of connection between teachers and the kids they teach. Cole worries about kids falling behind on reading and math skills. She wonders what standardized testing results will reveal, and if they’ll be penalized for them.
“It’s hard for teachers to do their classes, because everyone’s internet is lagging at the same time. Kids get frustrated because they can’t hear their teacher; parents get frustrated because they don’t know what to do,” Alma Bickford, the education director for the Karuk Tribe, explained.
With the help of CARES Act money, Bickford’s department set up a bookmobile that also provides Wi-Fi access. They drove the vehicle up and down the river, handing out free books, and a chance for locals to connect to Wi-Fi. But a staffer got COVID-19, and they had to pause.
“We’re still behind, it’s still hard, you still have people who are doing packet work, not coming to town, or they don’t have enough money to afford the service of Wi-Fi, because that is a luxury when you really think about it,” Bickford said.
“Having internet access is a luxury, and when you get more rural that luxury goes away.”