Lack of broadband puts tribal, rural areas ‘in jeopardy,’ lawmakers told

Havasupai Councilwoman Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss said her tribe has made some progress on internet connectivity but it – like other residents of rural areas – is in danger of being left behind without broadband. (Photo by Miranda Faulkner/Cronkite News)

By Miranda Faulkner | Cronkite News Thursday, July 11, 2019

WASHINGTON – The Havasupai tribe is falling behind in education, health and emergency needs because, like many rural communities, it lacks affordable, reliable and high-speed broadband, a tribal councilwoman told a House committee Thursday.

Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss was one of several witnesses who said rural areas are “in jeopardy” of being left behind without the high-speed internet access of broadband, which is used for everything from telemedicine to distance learning to up-to-the-minute market reports for farmers.

“Community members can better their lives and their education through future broadband expansion,” Watahomigie-Corliss said in testimony prepared for a House Agriculture subcommittee.

These services that ordinary Americans have been using for the past 20 years are still not a reality for my entire community, but this is the first glimmer of hope we have seen for decades,” she said of gain the tribe has made recently after decades of effort.

The Havasupai are among 24 million Americans in rural communities that lack infrastructure for high-speed broadband that is “critical to survival,” said Rep. Austin Scott, R-Georgia.

Big data and artificial intelligence, cloud storage and computing, the internet of things and data analytics, telemedicine, and other modern tools cannot be replicated without broadband access to the Internet,” he said.

Thursday’s hearing was called to find out “what’s being done well … and what work remains” to bring broadband to rural communities, said Rep. David Scott, D-Georgia, the subcommittee chairman who called the meeting.

Thin on broadband: Tribal areas still struggle with lagging technology

Witnesses talked about gains that have led to “adequate” service but leave much to be desired, with systems being overloaded or freezing at critical moments. They pointed to increased funding for rural broadband and other changes included in the 2018 farm bill, but added that more changes are needed to let the Agriculture Department “better target its limited resources to the rural communities most in need,” in the words of Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas.

The Havasupai live on the floor of the Grand Canyon in an “extremely isolated” area that is only accessible by horseback, helicopter or an 8-mile hike – with a trailhead that is 67 miles to the nearest town. Watahomigie-Corliss called it “the definition of rural.”

But that doesn’t mean empty: Besides the 398 people who live year-round in the village of Supai, the community and its waterfalls attract 35,000 tourists a year, which requires the ability to provide efficient healthcare and emergency services.

We do not have good emergency communication capabilities to the furthest gorge that tourists like to visit, and their safety is our responsibility,” Watahomigie-Corliss told the committee. “Navigating the canyon can sometimes be a life-or-death situation if someone gets lost.”

The village population rises to 423 in summer, when children return home from school: Since Havasupai schools only go to eighth grade, tribal youth have to leave Supai and go to boarding school if they want to earn a high school diploma. That can be difficult for tribal children who may be “unable to adjust … and return to the village, never going back to their studies,” Watahomigie-Corliss said.

Efforts to set up online courses for students had faltered. But Watahomigie-Corliss said the tribe has recently secured a 30 megabits-per-second connection and set up an equipment checkout program that helped prompt its first successful online classes.

“While we have had success, we also have more needs,” Watahomigie-Corliss said.

She said the tribe plans to expand service to “bring broadband coverage to the whole village, increase backhaul from 50 Mbps to one Gbps (gigabit per second), provide emergency communications throughout the canyon, connect an online charter high school and allow for telemedicine in the new clinic.” And her tribe is not alone, she said.

“The disparities felt by my community may be of the most extreme examples felt by rural tribal nations, but the disparity of the digital divide are being felt all across the Indian Country,” Watahomigie-Corliss told the committee.


Ft Collins, Coloradan

Fort Collins wants to make sure residents get their fill of football and reruns of “The Big Bang Theory” in the years to come.

As the city gears up to launch Fort Collins Connexion, the voter-approved broadband network that promises high-speed internet service for every home and business that wants it, officials are doing what needs to be done to ensure the network has plenty of video offerings.

However, they’re still not saying what customers will have to pay to watch their favorite shows via Connexion or when the network will be available in specific parts of the city.

Some details, including the pricing structure, will be revealed before Connexion launches in August, said Erin Shanley, broadband marketing manager.

Connexion will offer internet, phone and video services. An early business plan for the network projected charges of $70 per month for gigabit-per-second internet speed and $50 per month for 50-megabit speed.

As consumers wait for solid pricing information from the city — and prepare to weigh it against what Comcast, CenturyLink and other service providers charge — Connexion contractors are continuing to run fiber optic cable around town.

It’s a big job. Crews will string 1,000 miles of fiber to reach the city’s 62,000 premises, according to a previous Coloradoan story. The city issued $143 million in bonds to pay for building out the network.

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In the meantime, City Council is doing its bit to line up the legal elements the network needs to deliver services. The council, acting as the Electric Utility Enterprise Board, gave initial approval July 2 to an ordinance allowing the utility to enter into long-term license contracts to acquire video content rights. Second reading of the ordinance is scheduled for Tuesday.


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The ordinance follows a council decision in February allowing the city to join the National Cable Television Cooperative, or NCTC, which is a video content aggregator service organization.

NCTC is a nonprofit that negotiates master licensing agreements with video content producers on behalf of its members. Membership cost the city $35,600.

Video content producers include traditional cable television networks. With more than 750 members, the organization has considerable clout in negotiating agreements with video suppliers.

A list of networks that potentially could be offered to Connexion customers includes a lot of familiar parent companies and their channels: A&E, C-SPAN, Discovery, Disney ESPN, Fox, Hallmark, Home Box Office, NBC Universal, Showtime, Turner Broadcasting, Viacom and the Weather Channel.

Denver television stations are not accessible through NCTC. Getting those stations included in a Connexion video package will require separate long-term license agreements, Shanley said.

Popular video streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime will be compatible with Connexion but will not be offered in video packages. Customers will have to subscribe to streaming services on their own.

Construction of Connexion infrastructure is on schedule, Shanley said. The first segments of the network are expected to be “lit” next month, but officials won’t say where for competitive reasons.

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Residents will be notified the service is coming to their neighborhoods through social media and door hangers.

Door hangers also are being used to notify residents that Connexion construction crews are working through their neighborhoods.

That seems like a low-tech way to let residents know what’s going on with a high-tech service, but it’s better than nothing.

Kevin Duggan is a senior columnist and reporter. Support his work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by subscribing: See to learn how.