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Michigan Tribes Hope Federal Funds Expand Broadband Access

The federal government has allotted millions of dollars to bridge the digital divide in Indigenous communities through infrastructure development and offsetting Internet costs to increase accessibility.

(TNS) — Native American communities lag behind the rest of the country when it comes to broadband connectivity.

Slightly more than half of Native Americans living on reservations or other tribal lands have access to affordable high-speed internet service, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

In efforts to expand internet access across tribal lands, the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced that it has awarded 19 grants as part of the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program.

The grants come under the Affordable Connectivity Program — part of the $1 trillion infrastructure package passed by Congress last year included $14.2 billion funding for the ACP.

The ACP provides $30 monthly subsidies ($75 in tribal areas) on internet service for millions of lower-income households.

With the new commitment from the internet providers, some 48 million households will be eligible for $30 monthly plans for 100 megabits per second, or higher speed, service — making internet service fully paid for with government assistance if they sign up with one of the providers participating in the program.

The Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program plays a crucial role in closing the digital divide in tribal communities, said Alan Davidson, assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information.

"Affordable access to the internet opens a world of life-saving technologies, economic opportunities, remote learning, and countless other essential benefits," said Davidson.

Complex challenges faced by tribes include deployment, adoption, affordability, and access, as well as lack of investment dollars and access to credit and start-up or gap financing, according to the Federal Communications Commission's Office of Native Affairs and Policy.

Kay Mayer, Ojibwe of the Sault Tribe, said they plan to access the ACP program to help offset the high costs of internet access.

Mayer recently moved back to their ancestral lands in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., in the Upper Peninsula to study the six-year Anishinaabemowin Pane Immersion Program at the Bay Mills Community College.

Since the language teachers have remained online during the pandemic, "all of my classes are, too," said Mayer.

The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, along with sovereign nations in Michigan, enacted several programs from COVID relief grant funds during the pandemic to help offset their citizen's broadband costs.

Mayer said because of this, they have been able to receive discounted rates on their internet service, allowing the accessibility to focus on their studies.

With the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, funded by the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, $980 million was made available for grants to eligible Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian entities for broadband deployment, digital inclusion, workforce development, telehealth and distance learning.

The recently enacted Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides an additional $2 billion in funding for this program, as part of an historic $65 billion investment to expand broadband in communities across the U.S.

National Telecommunications and Information Administration launched a series of new grant programs intended to build broadband infrastructure across the country, create more low-cost broadband service options, and address digital equity and inclusion needs.

The Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi reservation located in what is now Fulton, will receive $1,205,764 in grant funding from NITA.

The funds will be put towards a "use and adoption" program to help upgrade the local fiber-optic infrastructure that currently serves the tribe's government offices, businesses and other institutions.

In addition to the upgrade, 35 houses on the reservation will be impacted and will help the tribe's citizens have better access for work, education, business and health.

Annual amounts of federal financial assistance vary depending on the number and quality of tribal-related applications received, and the number of tribal-related broadband awards made by the funding agencies.

Some programs may not formally track funding to tribal areas, making it difficult to come up with an accurate total number, and making assessing federal funding for tribal broadband more complicated.

Some tribes, like the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians have opted into planning their own sovereign networks.

In an effort to fix the community's long standing internet problem, GTB obtained federal grants to build their own broadband infrastructure — GTB Fiber.

As previously reported by the Record-Eagle, shortly after GTB Fiber was enacted by GTB council in 2017 the tribe began installing fiber-optic cable along state and county roads in Leelanau County.

GTB tribal manager and chairman did not respond to requests for comment.

(c)2022 The Record-Eagle (Traverse City, Mich.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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