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Most Isolated Tribe In Continental U.S. Gets Broadband

Sep 16, 2019
Originally published on September 16, 2019 4:25 pm

Nestled among turquoise blue waterfalls and cottonwood trees, the tiny Havasupai reservation is accessible only by foot, by mule or by helicopter. It's a five-minute flight from the rim of the Grand Canyon to Supai Village on the canyon floor, where 450 tribal members live in small homes made of panel siding and materials that can be easily hauled or lifted in.

It's no wonder Internet access has been a challenge. But recently, the Havasupai have had some help from the Oakland-based nonprofit MuralNet.

"Look at that," MuralNet CEO Mariel Triggs says as tribal members look at smartphones. "We got bars! Dang!"

We were able to put up a network in just a few hours for less than the cost of a Toyota Corolla. - Mariel Triggs, CEO of broadband company MuralNet

Triggs trains the Havasupai how to install a network box outside a home. MuralNet — with the help of Flagstaff-based Niles Radio — built what's called a microwave hop from towers at the Grand Canyon's rim that beam a broadband signal down to Supai Village.

"And we were able to put up a network in just a few hours for less than the cost of a Toyota Corolla, frankly," Triggs says.

The total cost was closer to $127,000. Triggs says the isolated geography wasn't the issue. Rather, policy was holding up the process. The Federal Communications Commission finally granted the tribe a permanent broadband license last spring.

Now the Havasupai want to increase the signal strength, but they've run into another hurdle. A second Internet provider, GovNET, says it may be interested in bringing broadband here. Now the FCC is dealing with concerns over competition while it is considering expanding the village's signal strength.

"We have the funds," Triggs says. "We have the money. We could do it. We could put materials that are needed in the towers and connect everything, but we have to wait for all this policy stuff again to sort out." Triggs worries that process could take years. "It just kills me because I feel like policy is actually causing the digital divide right now rather than helping to fix it."

Limited connections

Currently only seven Havasupai families can connect, including the Balderrama family. Sally Balderrama's son Evan is 9 but tests at the kindergarten level. A therapist flies down into the canyon twice a month to work with Evan and other kids with special needs.

"It's not enough time," Balderrama says. "It's not enough. I wish they can stay at least for three to four days."

Thanks to the new Internet connection, the therapist can now work with Evan three times a week via Skype. Balderrama says she has noticed a big difference in her son, but there are still technical problems.

About 450 Havasupai live in the remote Supai Village at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The tribe has tried to get broadband in the past, but the process has been difficult to navigate.
Laurel Morales / KJZZ

"The Internet is good," Balderrama says. "It is. But we have times when it pauses and it spins and that's kinda frustrating."

The increased connectivity has helped all students in the village, not just those with special needs.

At the Supai Village's Head Start Center, director Carlos Powell tries to get 20 toddlers to take a nap.

"Remember, boys and girls, you don't have to go to sleep but you have to rest your brain because you were thinking so hard today," Powell tells them.

He and his teachers now have access to the Internet and a way to keep up with federal certification requirements.

"The only way we can accomplish that is through broadband," Powell says. "Having to send my teacher out for a semester would be way, way expensive for this tribe and that teacher to do."

Beyond education

Havasupai Councilwoman Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss is trying to get the tribe more reliable high-speed Internet for a whole host of other reasons. Among them: teens could take high school courses online instead of being sent away to boarding schools; community members could train to do the jobs the tribe outsources now; the Havasupai could have better emergency communication during one of the region's many flash floods; and they could have better access to health care.

"We have different generations of telemedicine equipment that have just been sitting around collecting dust because [broadband] has been unable to be established," Watahomigie-Corliss says. "Broadband speeds, high-speed Internet, those things are specific."

Meanwhile, the FCC estimates at least a third of people living on tribal lands don't have access to high-speed Internet. So the agency is giving tribes first dibs on applying for available broadband spectrum — ahead of commercial companies — at the beginning of 2020.

But the problem is twofold: The window to apply is short. And the FCC would require the tribes to build their infrastructure — the towers and antennas — in half the time required of major telecom companies.

Copyright 2019 KJZZ. To see more, visit KJZZ.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's time now for All Tech Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF ULRICH SCHNAUSS' "NOTHING HAPPENS IN JUNE")

CORNISH: This month, we're looking at the tech issues that most affect rural America. And today, we go to a remote place where one of the most isolated Native American tribes is finally getting more broadband Internet service, and it hasn't been easy. But if the Havasupai can install reliable high-speed Internet at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, they could bridge the digital divide for other tribes. From member station KJZZ, Laurel Morales reports.

LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: The Havasupai Reservation is only accessible by foot, by mule or by helicopter.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER BUZZING)

MORALES: It's a five-minute flight from the rim of the canyon to Supai Village, where 450 tribal members live in small homes made of panel siding and materials that can be easily hauled to the canyon floor. It's no wonder Internet access has been a challenge. But recently, the Havasupai have had some help from the Oakland-based nonprofit MuralNet.

MARIEL TRIGGS: Oh, yeah. Look at that. We got bars. Dang.

MORALES: MuralNet's Mariel Triggs trains the Havasupai how to install a network box outside a home. Triggs, with the help of Flagstaff-based Niles Radio, built what's called a microwave hop from towers at the rim that beam a signal down to Supai Village.

TRIGGS: And we were able to put up the network in just a few hours for less than the cost of a Toyota Corolla, frankly.

MORALES: Triggs says the geography wasn't the issue. It was policy holding up the process. The Federal Communications Commission finally granted the tribe a permanent license last spring. Now the Havasupai want to increase the signal, but they've run into another hurdle. Another Internet provider says it may be interested in bringing broadband here. So now the FCC is dealing with concerns over competition.

TRIGGS: We have the funds. We have the money. We could do it. We could put the materials that are needed in the towers and connect everything, but we have to wait for all this policy stuff again to sort out.

MORALES: Triggs says she's worried it could take years.

TRIGGS: It just kills me because I feel like policy is actually causing the digital divide right now rather than helping to fix it.

MORALES: Currently, only seven Havasupai families can connect, including the Balderramas. Sally Balderrama's son Evan is 9 but tests at the kindergarten level. A therapist flies down into the canyon twice a month to work with Evan and other kids with special needs.

SALLY BALDERRAMA: It's not enough time. You know, it's not enough. I wish they can stay at least for, you know, three to four days.

MORALES: Thanks to the new Internet connection, the therapist can work with Evan three times a week via Skype.

Have you noticed a difference in Evan?

BALDERRAMA: Oh, yeah. Yeah. And the Internet is good - it is - but we have times, you know, when it pauses, and it spins. And, you know, that's kind of frustrating.

MORALES: One of the people trying to get the tribe more reliable high-speed Internet for kids with special needs is Councilwoman Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss. She points to a whole host of other reasons - so teens can take high school courses online instead of being sent away to boarding schools, so they can have better emergency communication during one of their many flash floods and for better health care.

OPHELIA WATAHOMIGIE-CORLISS: We have different generations of telemedicine equipment that have just been sitting around collecting dust because it's been unable to be established. Broadband speeds, high-speed Internet - those things are specific.

MORALES: Meanwhile, the FCC estimates at least a third of people living on tribal lands don't have access to high-speed Internet, so the agency is giving tribes first dibs on applying for available broadband spectrum ahead of commercial companies at the beginning of 2020. But the problem is this. The FCC would require the tribes to build their infrastructure - the towers and antennas - in half the time required of major telecom companies.

For NPR News, I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHAKEY GRAVES SONG, "IF NOT FOR YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.