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Affordable broadband out of reach for most tribal reservations in the U.S.

Only 33 percent of residents living in tribal ZIP codes around the U.S. have access to an affordable broadband connection, according to a new study from BroadbandNow, a customer advocacy and Internet Service Provider (ISP) comparison site.

In comparison, 51% of people who live in ZIP codes that are not on tribal reservations have access to affordable broadband.

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To provide a snapshot of what internet access looks like right now, BroadbandNow continually gathers data on internet access from around the country, said Tyler Cooper, BroadbandNow’s editor in chief. Digital Trends has previously reported that the stark digital divide especially affects rural and Native Americans.

“In the past decade, the FCC [the Federal Communications Commission, which is responsible for overseeing the connectivity of telecoms in the country] has adopted the strategy of letting private sector do what it will,” said Cooper. “It said that market will innovate. And this has been true in Seattle and Houston and Dallas and major metro areas. You can find good speeds and competitive prices there. When it comes to rural communities and especially tribal areas, you find that when left to the free market, a major provider will not want to extend robust fiber connection to a community of 3,000 people.”

“In 2019 Microsoft reported that only 49% of the U.S. population has access to broadband speeds, meaning it is unavailable to more than 160 million Americans”

Earlier this year, the FCC released a report saying that somewhere around 21.3 million Americans didn’t have broadband access. That number, Cooper said, is low. By BroadbandNow’s own estimate, which used data from the FCC as well as internet service providers, that number is likely double. It estimates that 42 million people, or 6.5% of the population, does not have broadband.

Numbers are suspect

Mark Buell, the nonprofit Internet Society’s regional bureau director for North America, said that because of the difficulty of collecting accurate information in rural areas, even the FCC’s numbers were suspect.

“In its latest report, the FCC estimated that 92.3% of people in the U.S. have access to broadband, but in 2019 Microsoft reported that in fact only 49% of the U.S. population has access to broadband speeds, meaning it is unavailable to more than 160 million Americans,” Buell told Digital Trends. “You can be sure that many Indigenous communities are among those who are not connected … due to low population density in rural and remote areas and very problematic broadband mapping regimes, the information we have is incomplete at best for Indigenous areas. Available information sources often provide an incomplete picture of internet access in Indigenous areas or are virtually nonexistent.”

Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss, a tribal councilwoman in Arizona, installs a hot spot at the bottom of a canyon. Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss

“It doesn’t make much sense that we even have a digital divide to the extent we do in the U.S. today,” Cooper added.

Infrastructure issues

The federal definition of broadband is having 25 mbps of download speed and 3 mbps of upload speed. Overall, when not accounting for price, the BroadbandNow study found that while 94% of people living in nontribal ZIP codes have access to broadband, only 82% of those living in “tribal ZIP codes” do.

The average price of broadband in the U.S. is $70. Working off of that, BroadbandNow narrowed down the field of those who can actually afford to purchase that internet, based on whether broadband was available in their areas for $60 or less a month. In some states, like Alaska, Colorado, Massachusetts, and Montana, the number of affordable providers was zero. In Alaska, for example, the state has one major provider, and the massive scope and landscape of the state make internet access difficult.

“It doesn’t make much sense that we even have a digital divide to the extent we do in the U.S. today.”

It’s hard to blame the ISPs, Cooper said. The effort it would take to build out infrastructure to a rural community would mean the company would probably not see a return on that investment. But this has left millions of Americans stranded in a world that very suddenly went almost fully digital.

According to Bernard Borghei, the executive vice president of operations at Vertical Bridge, the largest private owner of communications equipment in the U.S., the FCC has been “active” in providing spectrum to carriers that are trying to expand broadband access to the rural U.S. In fact, stipulations of rural coverage were baked into the government’s approval of the recent Sprint-T-Mobile merger, as well as AT&T‘s new license for FirstNet, its public communications platform.

But this isn’t going to happen overnight. “I believe that over the next 3 to 5 years, we will see noticeable improvements in the availability and accessibility to broadband services, with high speeds and quality for rural America,” Borghei wrote in an email to Digital Trends.

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