Panel examines Navajo broadband barriers

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May 7—Heleen Archuleta, a sophomore at Cuba High School who lives in the Counselor community of the Navajo Nation, was U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján's virtual guest for President Biden's joint address to Congress in April.

But the 16-year-old Navajo student didn't have internet at home — or electricity — to watch the president's remarks live.

"(The pandemic) exacerbated existing disparities between the communities that have (internet) access and those that don't, including many of our tribal and pueblo and rural communities," Luján said during a panel discussion of tribal, federal and state leaders held remotely Thursday. "If we can close this gap for Heleen, we can make incredible gains across America and especially across the Navajo Nation."

The U.S. Department of Commerce's new Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program will direct a total of $1 billion to tribal governments, colleges and organizations.

Grants could fund tribal broadband infrastructure, free or reduced-cost internet, and distance learning and telehealth programs.

"We all realize that's a drop in the bucket," Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said.

Only 46% of households on tribal lands have basic broadband access, according to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the internet gaps for students and employees across the 27,000-square-mile reservation.

"The geographical terrain makes broadband access and development an expensive challenge here on Navajo and all across Indian Country," Nez said. "Lack of electrical infrastructure, the existence of many dark zones with no cellular services available, the lack of fiber and few broadband service providers all lead to limited and expensive broadband services."

Other barriers include tribes being unable to access unused spectrum on or near their lands, and a complicated federal approval process for tribal internet projects that overlap with state or federal land.

The New Mexico Legislature appropriated about $130 million in the recent session for broadband programs, and created the Office of Broadband Access and Expansion.

"We want every single New Mexican, no matter where they are, to be connected," Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said.

The state is also nearing completion on a $3.2 million contract for a Sceye Inc. study using blimp-like balloons to provide internet, which could bridge the access gap for rural tribal areas.

The Commerce Department anticipates they will begin accepting grant applications this summer.

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