High-speed internet for homes and businesses in Native American communities has been elusive for the last 20 years. Elusive, that is, until now. Thanks to Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján, we are on the precipice of real connectivity on tribal lands.
Groundbreaking federal legislation, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which our senators supported, allocated $65 billion to connect the remaining 6% of U.S. homes without access to high-speed internet, including tribes, nations, and pueblos in New Mexico. Thankfully, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and her team at the Office of Broadband Access and Expansion are already moving to invest New Mexico’s share of the broadband funding with a special focus on tribal community needs.
There’s just one thing standing in the way: access to utility poles.
For decades, utility poles have been key to the nation’s communications infrastructure, bringing electricity and phone service to many tribal lands. Today those same poles have the potential to bring broadband internet to homes, chapter houses, libraries, and community centers on rural Indian reservations. For unserved areas – like the many tribal lands that lack access to any high-speed internet infrastructure – the most efficient way to get those communities connected is for internet service providers to attach their technology to existing utility poles.
The challenge is that most broadband providers do not own utility poles – electric companies, co-ops, local utilities, and other entities do. So, providers must get permission to access poles and pay a fee to affix their technology. All of which would be fine if there were a functional system for accessing to poles.
Unfortunately, the permitting process can be complicated and opaque. Not all pole owners share the same sense of urgency around universal broadband access as people living on unserved tribal lands do. Even though providers have shown they are willing to pay for the costs associated with their new pole attachments, in some cases, disputes arise over the cost for access. These disputes can go on for months before they are heard and resolved. Without a process to resolve disputes or a fast-track for pole access, this process can drag out leaving Indigenous communities stranded without internet – again.
Until federal leaders take action to reform the process of getting access to utility poles to bring broadband to remote communities that have electrical service, connectivity in Indian Country will remain out of reach.
In the end, it’s unserved communities, like those on tribal lands, that suffer from this broken process. It’s our children who have to do their homework in library parking lots because they don’t have internet at home and our elders who have to drive hours to see a specialist because they don’t have access to telehealth.
While utility pole access is not the only solution – some tribal lands, particularly on the Navajo Nation, lack even basic electrical service and therefore lack the needed infrastructure – the bipartisan infrastructure law holds great promise to finally get underserved rural tribal communities access to high-speed internet. We need leaders in Washington, like Heinrich and Luján, to see this opportunity through and make sure we update utility pole access rules and create the conditions needed to allow this law to do what it was meant to do: Connect all of us.
Americans for Indian Opportunity is an Albuquerque-based Indigenous rights advocacy organization.