Tribal colleges and universities continue to struggle with broadband access

Participants at a recent tribal college conference were given a map of a campus parking lot. Not a map of how to get to the parking lot, but a map of the parking lot itself, highlighting the locations with the strongest Wi-Fi signal.

Students, faculty, and staff at Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) across the country have routinely assembled in their local campus parking lots, the glow of their laptops and cellphones as positive connectivity indicators.

TCUs have honed their skills in navigating scarce resources. Even after eighteen months of a pandemic that is still wreaking havoc on higher education, internet access remains a barrier for many institutions.

According to the Federal Communications Commission and the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, 68 percent of Americans who live on tribal lands do not have broadband access. The average internet speed across all 35 accredited TCUs is 336 megabytes per second. A four-year institution’s average internet speed is 3.5 gigabytes per second. Because of their remoteness and a lack of internet service providers, the costs of improving internet access or installing broadband at these schools are frequently higher.

Watch the video of WCA’s Broadband in Underserved Rural Areas – 2021 event.

Since the CARES Act provided funding, some TCUs have used it to improve their wireless connections. On the other hand, others have chosen to use those funds to incentivize vaccinations to allow in-person instruction.

Internet access could aid TCUs in their mission of providing world-class education and actively preserving Native American cultures and traditions. “We’re all concerned about the loss of our tribal languages, and we know that technology can help with that restoration,” Crazy Bull said. “We think of it in terms of tribal sovereignty. Tribal self-determination is related to the amount of information you have about yourself.”

“Having reliable access reduces the stress and anxiety that’s associated with being successful with your education. That’s really important. Access to tech is wrapped up in social and economic wellbeing,” she said, adding that a solid digital infrastructure “allows you to participate in society.”

Dr. Cheryl Crazy Bull, president of the American Indian College Fund.

Dr. Charles M. Roussel, president of Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona, stated that the school had a combined bandwidth of about 400 megabytes per second per campus eighteen months ago. “We now have 2.5 gigahertz per second,” he explained. “Wait a minute, that’s a night and day difference.”

Diné has assisted students in gaining access to laptops and hotspots. They also established two “micro-campuses” where students from any institution, K-12 or otherwise, can access campus facilities without having to travel long distances on a reservation that is approximately 25 square miles wide. Diné even established a campus in Utah, a first for the college.

These infrastructure upgrades cost around $1 million to complete. And their new, lightning-fast internet speeds have cost them $800,000 per year. Diné has enough federal funding to sustain these improvements for the next few years, according to Roessel, but he is concerned about what will happen when that funding runs out.

“We would not be able to afford it without the additional funds provided by the CARES Act,” he added.
Despite being in some of the most challenging circumstances, Roessel took advantage of the opportunity and funding available. “Rethink our system. We’re almost completely online. We can’t go back to the old way of doing things.”

Dr. David Yarlott Jr., president of Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency, Montana, announced a three-week closure in March 2020 to figure out how to move the school online.

“We were completely an in-person-only institution,” Yarlott explained, “which added the additional challenge of needing to get faculty certified to teach online.”

Little Big Horn was fortunate in that a faculty member living more than three hours away had learned how to teach her classes online during the winter months when travel was hampered by snow and ice. She assisted the institution in becoming at ease with the uncomfortable.

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