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The internet connection was so poor where Tracey Yazzie’s children are enrolled in school on the Navajo Nation in Arizona last year that educators switched to a low-tech solution: paper, pencil and a yellow school bus.
Each week, a bus from the Round Rock school would drop off packets of schoolwork for Yazzie's two children, who had very little interaction with teachers and other students, because of spotty internet service when the pandemic closed schools, she said.
“It’s been very challenging,” said Yazzie, a 33-year-old nurse. “But we at least have dial-up at home. Many of the families at the school don’t have any connection at all.”
Affordable high-speed, broadband internet is rare across Navajo Nation, the reservation that stretches across three southwestern U.S. states and is larger than state of West Virginia. And its absence for many families, especially over the past 15 months, has further exposed how critical access to it is for residents to participate in basic elements of society.
It’s a problem the Biden administration is looking to tackle as part of its infrastructure push. Despite initially diverging views on how much to spend, expanding broadband access is one of the few areas on which Democrats and Republicans agree.
The first iteration of President Joe Biden's American Jobs Plan — which proposed $2.25 trillion in overall spending that would rebuild 20,000 miles of roads, improve public housing and invest in care for older adults — included $100 billion to expand access to broadband on Native American lands and other rural areas. Republicans pushing a narrower $568 billion proposal had proposed spending $65 billion on broadband, an amount the White House said Friday was acceptable as part of a $1.7 trillion counteroffer. Republicans indicated that even with a scaled-back price tag, big differences remain, particularly around what counts as "infrastructure."
“There's a place that we can find bipartisanship and it's one thing I brought up to the president: We first have to start with the definition of what is infrastructure,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said last week following a White House meeting on infrastructure. “That's roads, bridges, highways, airports, broadband. Those are the places we could find common ground to work together.”
Tribal leaders, internet access experts and reservation residents in different parts of the U.S. say the kind of investment Congress is eyeing is long overdue.
“Broadband is basic infrastructure. It’s as necessary now as electricity once was,” Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, D-N.M., the chair of the House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the U.S., said in an interview. “Everybody knows now, viscerally, what it means to depend on the internet.”
“This kind of package would not only provide resources to actually put lines in the ground or overhead, but it would also end up saving lives, when you think about how it can help people get vaccinations, get educations,” she added. “We can’t leave anyone behind.”
Pandemic exposes digital divide
According to an American Indian Policy Institute analysis of federal data, just 67 percent of tribal lands in the continental U.S. have access to broadband internet, with the majority only having access to broadband speeds considered by the Federal Communications Commission to be less than “minimally acceptable.”
Meanwhile, less than half the residents of tribal lands in the continental U.S. actually subscribe to it, largely due to the high costs, the analysis found.
Those figures are far below the percentage of overall rural communities in the U.S. that have access to broadband and broadband that works at minimally acceptable speeds. And because reporting such data in remote areas can be difficult, experts believe the actual numbers for tribal nations are even lower.
In Navajo Nation, where Yazzie and her family live, more than half of the 110 Navajo communities on the land lack broadband access.
Sixty percent of residents residents lack any fixed internet access at all, according to tribal leaders — and broadband speed for the communities that do have it is slow, spotty and expensive. Navajo Nation residents with broadband pay about $44 — or 52 percent — more a month for it compared to average prices across the U.S., and for slower speeds, according to an analysis by New America, a left-leaning policy think tank.
There and elsewhere, lack of consistent, reliable broadband hinders not just online school, but access to everything from vital telehealth appointments to filing taxes online, as well as the ability for tribal governments to run smoothly and to make announcements, including crucial ones regarding public health, safety and emergencies.
“We have an enormous connectivity problem. We just don’t have the lines. The reality is that there are widespread patches of absolutely no connectivity,” said Traci Morris, executive director of the American Indian Policy Institute. “And the families that do have connectivity, it’s not nearly fast enough.”
While the pandemic blew the digital divide wide open, Morris and other experts said, tribal lands for years have suffered from additional unique circumstances far beyond a lack of funding that made building broadband internet especially challenging.
They include a complex permit process because hundreds of Native American reservations are sovereign lands; the cost of building broadband infrastructure in sparsely populated areas with rugged terrain is not profitable for private communications companies; and many reservation residents still need running water, electricity and a cellphone signal.
Two companies that provide internet in areas of Navajo Nation, Choice NTUA Wireless and Frontier Communications, didn't respond to questions from NBC News.
Biden’s plan would invest in building high-speed broadband infrastructure that would lead to universal access and adoption for all Americans. The plan “prioritizes" support for networks owned and operated by local and tribal governments and "providers with less pressure to turn profits and with a commitment to serving entire communities."
The plan would put money into infrastructure that must be built on tribal lands, including for extending fiberoptic cables over long distances to remote homes.
The plan also seeks to reduce the cost of broadband service — which for many on tribal lands who have it already has been prohibitively expensive — and increase internet usage.
According to the White House, while individual subsidies to cover those costs “may be needed in the short term,” the long-term solution to lower costs may have to come from Congress. “The President is committed to working with Congress to find a solution to reduce internet prices for all Americans, increase adoption in both rural and urban areas,” the White House has said.
The American Jobs Plan also proposes a $5 billion fund called the Rural Partnership Program that would specifically help rural regions and tribal nations with economic development, which could include additional funding for broadband infrastructure.
Because the Biden administration remains in negotiations with Republicans, specific legislation or allocations haven't been determined yet.
Experts said the money would significantly build on the $31 billion that Biden’s American Rescue Plan earlier this year invested into tribal lands. Prior administrations have also authorized funding for expanding broadband on Native American lands, but in far smaller amounts.
"Thirty-one billion barely scratches the surface for how to catch us to cities and states across the U.S.," Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in an interview. "But as a starting point, for more fiber, more towers, more lines in the ground, all of which is so expensive to do in our communities because of the terrain, it’s great to see."
“We like the plan and we absolutely need what they’re promising in Indian Country,” said Nez, who pointed out that robust mobilization efforts on his reservation, a large portion of which is in Arizona, helped turn the state blue for the first time in a presidential election since 1996.
"We had enormous turnout. We helped flip the state and the entire election," he said. "They know the influence we had, and they’ve given us a seat at the table."
‘It would make our lives better’
Navajo Nation is far from the only reservation where residents would benefit from better, faster, more accessible broadband.
In Valtina Littleshield’s area of the Cheyenne River Reservation, in central South Dakota, there is just one broadband internet provider. Connectivity is unreliable and the price is high, she said.
Every month, Littleshield, 67, who lives with her daughter, her daughter’s husband and their two children, does the math on her family’s earnings to make sure they can pay the bill for internet and phone service.
The cost of connectivity, which has allowed the kids to attend school virtually, has eclipsed $300 several times recently. Their connection, delivered by the only provider in their area, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Telephone Authority, frequently goes out and isn’t fast enough to reliably support a brief telehealth visit, Littleshield said. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Telephone Authority didn't respond to questions from NBC News.
As a result, Littleshield needs a family member to drive her 40 miles to her doctor in Eagle Butte or, at other times, 130 miles to Rapid City when she needs certain specialists, she said.
The reliable, affordable broadband internet the American Jobs Plan could bring to her area would “greatly change things for us,” Littleshield said.
“If they end up being able to do it, it’s going to give our kids a better education, it’s going to give our families better and quicker options to see doctors,” she added. “It would make our lives better.”