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Broadband

Joey Bray, a CenturyLink technician, checks the signals on wires in a crossbox behind the Albertsons supermarket on CY Avenue in 2012 in Casper. Each thin set of wires delivers Internet service to a customer’s home in the area.

Millions in recently awarded federal dollars will help the Northern Arapaho move forward with a broadband expansion project as both Wind River tribes work to bring speedy internet to the reservation.

The Federal Communications Commission said Monday that it would give the Northern Arapaho’s tribally-owned internet provider $4.1 million to help it connect nearly 850 homes on the reservation to speedy broadband service over the next decade. Broadband service is also a priority for the Eastern Shoshone tribe.

An estimated 82 percent of Americans have a broadband subscription, with only 67 percent of Native Americans possessing the service, according to 2018 Census Bureau estimates. But for Indigenous people living on rural tribal land – like the Wind River Reservation – broadband subscription rates drop to 53 percent, according to the Census Bureau.

“Broadband deployment on Tribal lands continues to lag behind the rest of the nation,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a Monday news release. “That’s why I’m so pleased that we are authorizing funding for a tribally-owned business to provide Gigabit-speed service on the Wind River Reservation. With this project, Native Americans who live on the Wind River Reservation will have access to the same super-fast broadband speeds as those who live in our nation’s big cities.”

While the Northern Arapaho Tribe is obligated to install or build much of the infrastructure needed on the reservation for the project, the plan is for both Wind River tribes to manage and maintain their own internet services, said Forest James, CEO of EnerTribe, a women- and Native American-owned consulting firm that helps tribes, government agencies and companies with economic development efforts.

EnerTribe is assisting both Wind River tribes with planning and mediation with Union Wireless, which is building some of the infrastructure, he said.

Already, a little more than 100 homes and about 20 businesses in Arapaho have gigabit fiber internet access, said Patrick Lawson, executive manager of Wind River Tribal Industries.

The FCC funding will be used to expand fiber to Ethete and Fort Washakie, he said.

Overall, Lawson said the $12 million project would give about 3,000 homes on the reservation access to the high-speed, reliable internet.

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The FCC money is part of its Connect America Fund that aims to improve broadband access in rural America, according to the release.

In addition, the Northern Arapaho is one of only 14 tribes that provides its own internet service, Lawson, who is also a Northern Arapaho citizen, said.

According to the news release, Wind River homes with the new high-speed internet will have download speeds of at least 1 gigabit per second and 500 megabits per second for uploads – much faster than the Wyoming average of a little more than 30 megabits per second for downloads and upload speeds of less than 15 megabits per second. That’s according to a state Broadband Advisory Council map of internet speeds created by surveys submitted by more than 1,850 Wyomingites.

Average upload and download speeds among Northern Arapaho Tribal Industries’ Wind River Internet customers is currently between less than 10 megabits per second and about 12 megabits per second, Lawson said.

“This is a real game-changer,” he said. “This fiber optic is light speed.”

While high-speed internet means faster social media surfing, video streaming and less lag during video game play, James said it can also serve as an important economic engine.

For example, he said faster internet could make long-distance learning possible, make it easier to monitor the health of elders or have telemedicine visits and video conference visits with doctors. High-speed internet could also benefit small business owners, encourage new business development or help draw tribal members who’ve moved away from the reservation back to be closer to their family and culture because of improved jobs and other opportunities.

“It’s limitless, and there’s also the fun part for kids like YouTube and Instagram,” he said.

Often, James said internet providers have been hesitant to offer broadband services to tribal communities because that meant working with a sovereign government in a rural area with a low population density.

“The tribes have either been left out or built around,” he said.

Increasingly, he said tribes are “leap-frogging technology” and moving from limited or no connectivity straight to faster fiber broadband internet.

“Because we were kind of late to the game … we’re putting the best infrastructure in,” Lawson said.

He said the tribe will also offer “lifeline support,” or discounted service prices, for those who qualify. He said the tribe is planning community meetings next month at an undetermined time and date to provide information on how to qualify for the subsidized pricing.

“It’s going to allow us to open up a lot of homes to service,” Lawson said.

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Follow reporter Chris Aadland on Twitter @cjaadland

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Chris Aadland covers the Wind River Reservation and tribal affairs for the Star-Tribune as a Report for America corps member. A Minnesota native, he spent the last two years reporting for the Wisconsin State Journal before moving to Wyoming in June 2019.

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