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Erlinda Soap enrolled in college classes at Northeastern State University without a laptop or home internet service. When she couldn’t borrow a relative’s laptop or tablet and internet connection—which was often—she used her cell phone to write and submit assignments.
The system wasn’t perfect. Soap, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation whose tribal name is Dagasi, almost gave up on her sociology degree because of frustration with her mobile service after Covid-19 lockdowns caused the campus to close.
“I was very nearly close to withdrawing from my classes, because the university was closed,” she told Tech Brew. “I’m living in a rural area with limited service. My work—it was a hit and miss. Maybe it might get submitted. Or maybe it just might totally shut down on me at the very last minute…It was really challenging.”
Now, a new AT&T-supported cell tower in the Cherokee community of Kenwood, Oklahoma, has made mobile connections more stable for locals like Soap. Her experience highlights the connectivity challenges many Native Americans face when living on or near tribal lands.
Vice President Kamala Harris noted in Dec. 6 remarks that “one in three Americans who live on tribal lands and in rural areas do not have access to high-speed internet.” A number of federal efforts currently seek to close that gap, including funds from the American Rescue Plan and federal grants dedicated specifically to improving connectivity on tribal lands.
For Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., the Kenwood tower—which drew on ARP funds—is an example of government grants, local leadership, and the private sector coming together for good. In an interview, he told us that, before the tower was installed, he knew he wouldn’t be able to receive phone calls when he visited Kenwood.
This led to the realization that the private sector didn’t see internet infrastructure there “as a profitable investment,” he said. The tribe used federal infrastructure funds to foot the construction costs for the cell tower, enabling a mobile provider to start serving the area more easily. In Kenwood’s case, that was AT&T.
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“It is a significant moment in time, and it is a lifetime opportunity to actually make a difference in bridging the digital divide,” Charlene Lake, AT&T’s chief sustainability officer and SVP of corporate responsibility, told us of public-private connectivity partnerships.
Along with infrastructure projects in tribal communities, Lake emphasized that AT&T is also focused on increasing access to end-user devices and service. That includes providing connectivity and computers to community centers and staffing outreach teams to encourage residents to take advantage of connectivity programs that are available to them.
“That adoption is the hardest part, actually,” Lake said. “You can have someone who’s got fiber running right by their front door, and they can be eligible for free internet service, and they’re still not signing up.”
There are 16 more Cherokee communities that still need critical connectivity infrastructure, Hoskin said. Cherokee Nation plans to follow the same “if we build it, they will come” model in the future, requiring a minimum of $80 million that the tribe has put together from federal funding sources.
For Hoskin, tribal connectivity isn’t just a matter of convenience or even public safety. Investing in connectivity infrastructure is crucial to preserving the community itself, he said.
“If we don’t, and the patterns that you see across the country, where people were maybe moving away from some of these communities that die on the vine, that'll happen for us,” he said.
“It goes to something that’s existential, whether what it means to be Cherokee, our life ways, our culture, our traditions, and most notably, our language—which has suffered over the centuries—whether that’s going to continue,” he said. “That’s not something you can replicate if people scatter to the four winds and move where the connectivity is now…We have to bring the opportunity to them.”