Rethinking Broadband Opportunities in Indian Country
Alec Tiger

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Introduction

With the unprecedented focus on the usage of internet services during the COVID-19 pandemic, broadband access has become even more of an important consideration for Tribal communities. Internet access has become a necessity, and investing in broadband infrastructure in Tribal lands provides a number of opportunities for government, education, health, and business. New grants through the upcoming Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program (TBCP) are specific funding for usage on broadband expansion. This provides a timely opportunity for Tribes to invest in broadband projects, a prospect that may be beneficial for both community and economic purposes. The rest of this paper will present information on three main points. First, the benefits and advantages of broadband investment for community members, in governmental operations, and as an economic prospect. Second, the specific funding opportunities available through new grants, and the intricacies involved in access and usage of funds. Finally, a presentation of precisely how Blue Stone Strategy Group—and our team of subject matter experts—can help Tribal Nations navigate this process from start to finish.

The Importance and Benefits of Broadband Investment

There is a good reason why the running term for our contemporary time period is the Information Age. Rather than computers or technology, our world is more centrally defined by the movement of information—communication of it, access to it, the speed and quality by which we come into contact with it. There is seemingly no area of economic life, political life, or social life which does not come into contact with this modern circulation of information. This is why it is more important than ever for Tribal Nations to emphasize their connectivity: to bolster their engagement with the modern state of information. For government, social, and administrative services, quality internet provides the clearing for integration of best practices and the connection of a Tribal government with their people, “Broadband reinvents the concept of ‘business hours,’ connecting citizens to their government any time and anywhere.” (Broadband USA). It specifically provides the opportunity to increase connectivity and efficiency in governmental services such as public safety, health, social services, housing, and more. For individual Tribal members, quality internet access provides a technological foundation which opens up opportunities that members may otherwise have not had access to. These opportunities include, but are not limited to, education, community building, and business development. These two categories—public/governmental sphere and individual/economic sphere—both present compelling opportunities and premises for investment in broadband infrastructure. Government/Public Services The general benefit of quality broadband infrastructure for the actions of government and provision of public services can be captured by the concepts of connectivity and efficiency. Connectivity is the capacity for interconnection of systems and individuals. In Tribal Nations, the level of connectivity a government has with its people is in direct relationship with that government’s ability to communicate with its people, as well as its people to communicate with their government. Integrating governmental functions online breaks down communication barriers. Following the syllogism through: communication between a government and the community it serves bolsters that government’s ability to serve those people best. This leads us into efficiency. Without a quality online presence, it is challenging for governments to function quickly and at the same quality level as they would like to. Particularly through the pandemic, people are relying more on a digital connection with their governments. The only way for Nations to maintain and increase the efficiency and quality of governmental-member relationships, online communication abilities must continue to increase. Bringing this communication and increasing the online abilities of a Tribal government first requires strong broadband infrastructure. With this general understanding now filled out, let’s turn to some specific areas/examples where government/public services may benefit from broadband investment.

  1. Telehealth. The healthcare industry is one of the best opportunities for Tribal Nations to generate revenue. Broadband investment provides an opportunity to expand health services through engagement into the emerging Telehealth industry. The Health Resources & Services Administration defines Telehealth as, “the use of electronic information and telecommunication technologies to support long-distance clinical health care, patient and professional health-related education, public health, and health administration.” (HRSA, 2021). Telehealth provides a number of benefits for Tribes. First, it expands possibilities and empowers more individuals to access health care. This happens both in rural areas where healthcare is geographically hard to access and through increasing the ease of access—this is particularly important through the pandemic and with social distancing pressures. Second, studies indicate it reduces costs in providing health care: “telehealth saved 6% in episode of care costs by diverting members who would otherwise have gone to the emergency room. The savings were $201 per episode of care in 2014 and 2015 dollars,” (Morse, 2019). However, a more exciting prospect of Telehealth for Tribal Nations comes in the potential for further revenue generation. Telehealth presents a business model of consumer-based care which can reach more patients, more efficiently, and with greater quality (OrthoLive, 2020). Finally, Telehealth carves out a new sector within health care services which leads to job creation. The generation of revenue and saving of costs allows for this job creation. Telehealth provides an opportunity to generate new revenue, lower costs, and increase the quality of care for members. These possibilities are all low-cost to implement once broadband infrastructure is covered.
    • Example: A case study example of the benefits of Telehealth implementation (both economically and for the community) comes from The Alaska Tribal Health System (ATHS). They began implementing Telehealth in 2001 and have continued to increase their usage of it as broadband access increased. Outcomes have been holistically positive: increased access and usage for patients, increased efficiency in turnover times, the ability to serve more patients, and an estimated $8-$10 million in travel cost savings (Hays, 2014).
  2. Public Safety. Broadband access opens up the ability for public safety departments to integrate higher quality and more effective surveillance, to increase speed and quality of emergency responses, to send out mass emergency notifications, and to generally enhance coordination. The Department of Homeland Security provides the following examples, “public safety users can have the ability to access video images of a crime in progress, download floor plans of a burning building, or connect rapidly and securely with personnel from other communities.” (Essid, 2012). The ability to integrate these practices into the public safety departments of Tribal Nations enables these departments to best protect their communities.
    • Example: The Makah Indian Reservation is located on the northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula which presents a number of connectivity issues, particularly for emergency response. Their work with First Net Authority has increased their broadband connectivity and allowed them to integrate practices such as community-wide tsunami notifications which can be triggered through an app on the Chief of Public Safety’s phone. (Giesler)
  3. Public Service Provision. For the provision of public services, broadband access increases efficiency and allows for the adoption of new and best practices. As noted in the Public Safety section above, quality internet can be used for mass notification. This can allow for the communication of infrastructure alerts (water, roads, power, etc.). Governments can also better track the effectiveness of their services which can allow for accountability practices, feasibility analysis, and goal analysis. An example of this is the tracking of public transportation usage. These examples and methods are a part of the new concept of a smart city. Smart cities are urban areas which use electronic methods and censorship to collect data, which in turn informs governments in how to best manage assets, resources, and services. While many Tribal Nations do not need to become smart cities in any strict sense, adopting practices of smart cities boosts efficiency, connectivity, and quality of governmental activity. Collecting and analyzing data about a government’s people is essentially a process of gathering information about how to best serve a people. This information allows Tribal governments to better determine goals, develop plans, and close gaps to implementation (Leah, 2016). Further, integration of smart city techniques can give Tribal Nations stronger insight into the needs and developments of Tribal lands, and help develop goals, plans, and action for land and environmental preservation.
    • Example: In 2019 the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe completed a solar energy project which integrated smart technologies such as, “solar panels, battery storage, advanced data analytics and smart energy management controls.” (Native Business, 2019). The smart technologies integrated are expected to help the Tribe optimally manage their energy needs and reduce costs.
  4. Housing. One commonly noted impact of broadband infrastructure is increased market value of housing and land. A recent study from Oklahoma State University found a significant and strong increase in the value of real estate with the FCC’s broadband threshold (Fiber Broadband Association). This is important both for Tribal real estate values themselves, but also for keeping Tribal members in their community. The increase of real estate value indicates an increase in desirability, but also an increase in opportunity.
  5. Education. While the pandemic has put online education into the central focus of the public eye, this is simply an acceleration of the steady increase of online education in recent years. Even after the pandemic, opportunities and possibilities for online education will be abundant. This makes broadband infrastructure an important tenet of education now and in the future.

Individuals and Business Development. Outside of the public sphere, Tribal Nations benefit from broadband infrastructure investments by providing quality internet services to their people. As we have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, many personal opportunities are now run through and determined by the internet. There are a number of specific ways in which internet service can benefit individuals and lead to the economic development of a Tribe.

  1. Employment & Business Opportunities. On the level of individual Tribe members, connection to the internet is becoming a necessary access point for accessing employment and business opportunities. Broadband infrastructure also opens up opportunities for employment matching in remote opportunities.

“For example, according to the FCC, more than 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies post job openings only online and require online applications. Many of those companies, such as Wal-Mart and Target, are major employers of lower-income workers.” (EDGE). Other economic analysis indicates a similar impact for internet access in keeping workers employed: “For example, a 2010 study from the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal and Economic Public Policy Studies estimates that access to broadband reduces by 50 percent the odds that job seekers will leave the workforce due to discouragement. Although dial-up access also likely reduces the odds that workers will stop seeking new jobs, the effect is smaller.” (Whitacre, 2019) In reviewing the two analyses above, it seems clear that broadband access is central to opening business and employment opportunities for individuals. If we take an even further macroeconomic perspective we find an even more robust case for increasing broadband infrastructure for Tribal economies as a whole. A study from Rural Development Economist Brian Whitacre attempted to isolate a causal effect of broadband access in rural economies. The findings indicate that non-metro counties with high broadband access have, “significantly higher growth in median household income,” (Whitacre, 2019) and slower increases in unemployment. Further, non-metro counties with low broadband access, “had lower growth in both the number of firms and total employment.” (Whitacre, 2013). Supplying broadband infrastructure, therefore, seems to have a strong causal impact on workforce development and benefits the health of the Tribal economy overall.

  1. Business Development. With the above macro-level economic analysis, let’s now turn to specific business development opportunities involved with broadband. Broadband opens up the potential for remote, home-based productivity (Community Broadband Networks). This is important for keeping workers engaged and productive during the pandemic and will continue to strengthen productivity and accountability in the post-pandemic workplace. Another business opportunity that requires a foundational broadband infrastructure is e-commerce. E-commerce, or electronic commerce, is the buying and selling of goods over the internet. A recent study from Evergreen College found that e-commerce businesses on Tribal Lands, “has a positive impact of $1,144,000 on GDP,” and, “Additionally, each eCommerce related job has a positive significant impact of $392,000 and each additional individual in the reservation-related economies has a positive significant impact of $289,000” (Native American Financial Association, 2019). E-commerce, or e-commerce related technologies, are low-cost to implement once the foundational broadband infrastructure is available. They raise revenues through more efficient planning, customer acquisition engagement, and stronger analytical metrics (Sasmita, 2021). Other best practices that broadband allows businesses to implement are security policies, mobile connection with employees, and employee training.

Navigating the Broadband Grants

While broadband infrastructure has been an important consideration for many years now, a number of new grant opportunities have emerged out of the COVID-19 pandemic relief. This provides a great opportunity for Tribes to secure the funding and move forward with broadband investment projects that may have not previously been possible or prioritized. These grants, likely to be finalized in the upcoming weeks, were passed through the Consolidated Appropriations Act and fall into three categories:

  1. Tribal Broadband Connectivity Grants: $1billion
    1. Grants to expand access to and adoption of (A) broadband services on Tribal land; or (B) remote learning, telework, or Telehealth resources during the COVID-19 pandemic
  2. Broadband Infrastructure Deployment Grants: $300 million
    1. Grants for covered broadband projects, defined as competitively and technologically neutral projects for the deployment of fixed broadband service in a census block with at least one household or business thats does not have access to 25/3 (25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload)
  3. Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program: $285 million
    1. Grants to eligible recipients in anchor communities for the purchase of broadband internet access service or any eligible equipment, or to hire and train information technology personnel

The following entities are eligible:

  • Tribal governments
  • Tribal colleges and universities
  • The Departments of Hawaiian Homelands on behalf of the Native Hawaiian education programs
  • Tribal organizations
  • Native corporations as defined under Section 3 of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act

How Blue Stone Strategy Group Can Help

Blue Stone Strategy Group has recently partnered with engineering and technical consulting firm, HR Green, in order to extend our services in broadband. With our internal team, collection of subject matter experts, and HR Green partnership, we can now help Tribal Nations with their broadband investments from the grant planning phase through the implementation of broadband benefits in governance and business. As Tribes know, it is important to be ahead of pace in planning in order to secure grant funding. Master planning is a central service of both Blue Stone Strategy Group and HR Green, and we are currently offering an accelerated planning package in order to help Tribes prepare for their grant applications with the limited time available. However, our services continue through this planning phase. ———————————– Works Cited Broadband USA. Why Does Broadband Matter? US Department of Commerce, broadbandusa.ntia.doc.gov/sites/default/files/resource-files/bbusa_why_does_broadband_matter.pdf. Essid, Chris. Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network. US Department of Homeland Security, June 2012, www.cisa.gov/sites/default/files/publications/Fact%20Sheet_Nationwide%20Public%20Safety%20Broadband%20Network_1.pdf. Fainchtein, Leah. “4 Key Best Practices in Planning and Building a Smart City.” IBM Developer Recipes, 18 July 2016, developer.ibm.com/recipes/tutorials/4-key-best-practices-in-planning-and-building-a-smart-city/#r_step4. Giesler, Adam, and Crystal Hottowe. “Episode 33: Tribal Public Safety in Coastal Regions.” First Responder Network Authority, firstnet.gov/newsroom/podcast/episode-33-tribal-public-safety-coastal-regions. Hays, Howard, et al. “The Success of Telehealth Care in the Indian Health Service.” AMA Journal of Ethics , Dec. 2014. “The Importance of E-Commerce in Indian Country – Native American Financial Services Association.” Native American Financial Services Association – Advocating for Economic Opportunity in Indian Country, 5 June 2019, nativefinance.org/news/the-importance-of-e-commerce-in-indian-country/. Morse, Susan. “Telehealth Eliminates Time and Distance to Save Money.” Healthcare Finance News, 16 Oct. 2019, www.healthcarefinancenews.com/news/telehealth-eliminates-time-and-distance-save-money. “Municipal Networks and Economic Development.” Community Broadband Networks, muninetworks.org/content/municipal-networks-and-economic-development#job. Native Business Staff. “Chemehuevi Tribe Completes $2.6M Solar Project to Further Energy Independence.” Native Business Magazine, 26 May 2019, www.nativebusinessmag.com/chemehuevi-tribe-completes-2-6m-solar-project-to-further-energy-independence/. Sasmita. “7 Step Framework for Successful Ecommerce Implementation.” Embitel, 29 Jan. 2021, www.embitel.com/blog/ecommerce-blog/framework-successful-ecommerce-implementation. “Study Shows Home Values Up 3.1% with Access to Fiber.” Fiber Broadband Association, www.fiberbroadband.org/blog/study-shows-home-values-up-3.1-with-access-to-fiber. “Telehealth Programs.” Official Web Site of the U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration, 8 Jan. 2021, www.hrsa.gov/rural-health/telehealth/. “Top 10 Benefits of Telehealth for Patients and Doctors.” OrthoLive, 17 Sept. 2020, www.ortholive.com/blog/top-10-benefits-of-telehealth-for-patients-and-doctors/. “Understanding the Broadband Access Gap: HUD USER.” Understanding the Broadband Access Gap | HUD USER, www.huduser.gov/portal/pdredge/pdr_edge_featd_article_100614.html. Whitacre, Brian, and Steven Deller. “Research Report: Broadband Availability Raises Market Value of Rural Houses.” Daily Yonder, 9 Aug. 2019, dailyyonder.com/broadbands-value-rural-houses/2019/07/17/. Whitacre, Brian. “Broadband’s Economic Impact.” Daily Yonder, 30 Nov. -1, dailyyonder.com/broadbands-impact-rural-economy/2013/08/21/.

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