America’s digital divide can be felt in some way across nearly every part of the country. While dense urban areas have more access, pricing can be a barrier in low income districts. In rural communities, there are often only one or two providers to choose from. These are serious obstacles to adoption for all Americans, but perhaps none are more affected than people living on tribal lands.
- 82% of the 14.2 million residents in tribal zip codes have access to a wired broadband connection, compared to 94% of non-tribal zip codes.
- Only 33% of these residents have access to a low-price wired broadband plan under $60 per month, compared to 51% of non-tribal residents.
- Louisiana has the least amount of tribal wired broadband availability in the country, coming in at 39%.
Tribal Wired Broadband Access Across the U.S.
Using the interactive map below, you can compare rates of wired broadband access in tribal lands to those in non-tribal zip codes. You can also compare access to low-priced wired broadband, which is any standalone internet connection costing $60 or less per month. Click the arrows in the bottom right corner to enter fullscreen:
Tribes in America
Our list includes 552 Tribal communities, including Reservations, Bands, Villages, and Colonies. Many of these have long been poorly served by telecommunications services - some of them have never even had a reliable cellular connection. You can search for data on each tribe using the tool below:
*Denotes a Tribe that shares at least one zip code with another Tribe. In these cases, 100% of the zip's population and access is attributed to every Tribe present for their calculation.
(1) POPULATION is the total population of all zip codes in which a Tribe is present
(2) % ACCESS TO WIRED BROADBAND is the percent of the total population of all zip codes in which a Tribe is present that have access to Cable, DSL, or Fiber internet of at least 25 mbps download and 3 mbps upload
(3) % ACCESS TO LOW PRICED WIRED BROADBAND is the percent of the total population of all zip codes in which a Tribe is present that have access to a standalone wired broadband plan that is priced at $60 or less per month on the regular monthly rate.
The Tribal Divide
Lack of infrastructure in tribal communities has been an issue since the earliest days of the internet. In 2018, the Government Accountability Office recognized this, stating that over the past decade, the FCC “has done little to promote and support tribes’ access” to crucial telecommunications spectrum.
With no tangible help on the horizon, some communities have been taking matters into their own hands. In early 2020, a group gathered in Pu’uhonua o Waimanalo, a small Native Hawaiian community on the island of O’ahu in Hawaii. Internet connection was so lacking here that parents reportedly had to take their children to a nearby town to use the Wi-Fi at McDonald’s. The group put together a plan, and worked with the Hawaiian government to establish a community broadband network.
Tribal Access & COVID-19
For many tribal residents, access to a reliable broadband connection has been a critical link to America’s healthcare system over the past six months. Government and health official resources and telehealth services have been essential in combating the rampant coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., but with so many in tribal communities unable to access the internet, the growing digital divide has a profound impact on underserved communities.
On February 3rd, the FCC opened a historic 180-day tribal priority window, allowing native nations to apply for the ability to license small sections of spectrum for the first time ever. This spectrum allocation could ostensibly be used to establish community networks in states that allow them, as well as make it easier for residents in these areas to convince private providers to finally serve them.
Additionally, in late July, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Congresswoman Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) announced a landmark bill that “would affirm Tribal Nations' and Native Hawaiian organizations' ownership of broadband spectrum over their lands to deploy wireless internet services.” This is a tangible step in the right direction, but still, much more remains to be done.
The Path Forward
In order to ensure the deployment of robust broadband across all of America’s tribal lands, the FCC must commit to a sustainable, concerted effort to incentivize service and infrastructure development within them. This was vital before the pandemic, and now, it is absolutely crucial to the continued health and safety of some of our most vulnerable citizens.
In the past, native communities have suffered immense tragedies due to a lack of critical infrastructure and aid. During the 1918 flu, these areas were affected four times more than the general population, according to a 2014 study published in American Indian Quarterly. At least 3,200 native Americans died, including 72 of 80 residents at the Inupiat village of Brevig Mission, Alaska.
To prevent history from repeating itself, we must act quickly to provide crucial communications and telehealth aid to communities who need it the most. This means repealing laws that block municipal networks, establishing a sustainable spectrum licensing system for tribal communities, and promoting nascent technologies like low-Earth orbit broadband in areas where physical infrastructure is impractical.
It is the shared responsibility of all Americans to ensure that the digital divide is closed, and affordable, equitable broadband is available to everyone.
About the Data
Broadband availability and pricing comes from BroadbandNow’s robust coverage and plan dataset that is constantly monitored and updated. Plans considered in this study were active in Q2 and July 2020.
Data is based on broadband availability at the zip code level, summarized to the state. Tribal zip codes were identified based on the Zip Code to Tribal Lands Feature Layer by NCCGeoPlatform from the US EPA Office of Environmental Information. When looking at State and National level stats, as long as a zip code contained at least one Tribe, it was considered Tribal.
When exploring Tribe specific stats, for each tribe we measured the availability of broadband and affordable broadband in every zip that a Tribe was located, even if other Tribes also have a presence in a zip. In these cases where zip codes are shared, the zip code's full population and broadband access data is allocated in its entirety to each tribe with a presence in that zip. Thus the population and the populations with access to broadband and affordable broadband are the aggregated result of all zip codes associated with a given tribe.
We are always looking to improve the granularity and accuracy of our datasets. If you have anything to contribute, please do not hesitate to reach out to us.