Broadband funding for indigenous communities could finally connect some of America’s most isolated places

And all that “last mile” work — installing or upgrading the antennas and cables that connect homes and businesses — is only part of the story. There is also the ‘middle mile’: the infrastructure that small networks need to send their data to the international telecommunications backbone. For the Blackfeet, this would involve updating that local exchange in Browning and connecting to a carrier hub serving all of North America and the world.

“The medium-mile fiber is missing,” said Matthew Rantanen, co-chair of technology and telecommunications at the National Congress of American Indians. “We calculated, got maps from carriers and tribes, worked with the GIS people and anchor agencies — there are about 8,000 missing miles in the Lower 48 states, 1,800 in California alone. That in itself is a billion dollar problem in the Lower 48 alone.”

There’s work to be done

Since the rollout of the CARES law in mid-2020, with the original deadline to have spent billions of dollars by December 2021, tribes have been scrambling to digest the opportunity. The purchase of the local exchange by Blackfeet was one of the few things that could be completed on time.

Unfortunately, not every tribe has been able to benefit as much from these funds. “Many tribes have not applied for the money,” Rantanen says. “Some tribes are very advanced and some have no staff. Or they have grant writers who don’t know how to think about technology who are trying to write technical grants.”

And now the costs are rising, partly due to inflation.

“Prices are getting higher and higher. The money will not go as far as it did.”

Mike Sheard, Siyeh Communications

Fiber projects are facing a bottleneck in the global supply chain. Major communications players like AT&T and Verizon buy every pallet of cable they can find. That leaves small projects like those on Indian reservations waiting 60 weeks or more to fulfill orders. Many had to apply for waivers before the spending deadline.

“The federal government has appropriated more than $60 billion for broadband, and the suppliers know it,” said Mike Sheard, president of Siyeh Communications, the company formed to oversee the new telecom exchange on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. “Prices are getting higher and higher. The money will not go as far as it did.”

While Rantanen says federal broadband funding probably won’t be enough to dig fiber rings for every tribe, a smart planning department could lay lots of cables while rebuilding a subsidized road or replacing an Infrastructure Act-backed water pipe.