Arlyssa D. Becenti
The Gila River Indian Community will be able to expand broadband after receiving a $ 4.4 million grant from the Department of Commerce through the agency’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
When COVID-19 first hit tribes across the country, it highlighted both the resilience and strength, as well as major structural flaws in communities, such as lack of water infrastructure or broadband infrastructure.
On the Gila River Indian Community south of Phoenix, officials quickly saw the need for better broadband to equip their tribe with more reliable internet services, especially when schools began to shut down and distance learning was required. Telehealth became the norm and COVID-19 information was disseminated through social media.
“We’ve long understood the importance of exercising our tribal sovereignty and keeping our community connected is top priority,” said GRIC Governor Stephen Roe Lewis. “When the pandemic hit we saw where our infrastructure was lacking.”
The community is among 19 tribes in 10 states nationwide to share in nearly $ 77 million in federal grants, and the only tribe in Arizona to receive the grant. The other states include Alaska, California, Connecticut, Louisiana, Michigan, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Dakota and Washington.
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The project proposes to improve access to and use of internet services among Pima and Maricopa tribal members in Pinal and Maricopa counties. Internet network expansion will assist in telehealth expansion, distance learning opportunities, affordable internet service, economic growth and digital inclusion efforts where demands for internet access have grown as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Commerce Department.
Lewis said at the beginning of the pandemic, when schools were shut down, parents and guardians had to take students to community school gyms or parking lots to fine connections so students could turn in assignments or even attend their classes.
“We knew we had to speed up the build-out of our infrastructure to boost access for our community members, for our students,” said Lewis. “We created hotspots at our community centers. We also are building cell towers to improve the mobile broadband and service, all those measures were so helpful. ”
The Gila River Indian Community lies south of metro Phoenix in Pinal and Maricopa counties. The reservation has a land area of more than 583 square miles and is made up of seven districts along the Gila River. Its largest communities are Sacaton, Komatke, Santan and Blackwater.
The tribe was one of the first to create its telecommunication service provider, said Lewis. In the 1980s, the Gila River Community Council took on the task of establishing a telephone company. On July 6, 1988, the council established Gila River Telecommunications, Inc. GRTI purchased the infrastructure from what was then US West and dug away at the task of upgrading the network throughout the Gila River.
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“We had to create GRTI and build it,” said Lewis. “We knew if we did not create our own capacity, to serve our people, to serve our nation, we knew we would not receive those services anywhere else.”
GRIC plans to expand access to affordable broadband programs for its members, households and families across the communities, Lewis said, and will create opportunities to utilize the technology in everyday lives.
“This $ 4.4 million will help us take the next step to what I call digital equity,” he said. “I see this as initial funding. We have to hold our federal partners, that trust responsibility that the federal government has to Indian Country, to continue this funding, to continue supporting. ”
The money was made available as part of the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program. The Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, funded by the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, makes $ 980 million available for grants to eligible Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian entities for broadband deployment, digital inclusion, workforce development, telehealth and distance learning.
Although Gila River Indian Community sits close to cities like Chandler, Coolidge, Goodyear and Laveen, residents aren’t any closer to high speed broadband.
“It shows the reality of sovereign nations,” said Lewis. “That shows just how the infrastructure ends literally at our borders. It’s the tribe’s responsibility to advocate for, to be very entrepreneurial, to hold the federal government accountable to provide funds to address these infrastructure deficits. ”
Lewis said he is appreciative that Congress and the Biden administration are recognizing the unique needs of tribal nations. This grant is significant because it is the largest single broadband investment for tribal nations.
GRIC, as well as many other Arizona tribes have used social media to get the word out about COVID-19, from informing members of case numbers, or where to get their vaccines, streaming town halls or relaying other important information, showing why tribes need good quality broadband and how it is a lifeline and a necessity.
“Because we live in intergenerational households our elders learned from the younger generation,” said Lewis. “After two and a half plus years of not being connected with relatives or fellow elders, they started to connect. I’m so proud of our elders learning how to operate a laptop, notebook, cell phone to get connected through Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok now. That shows how adaptable we are as a people. That goes back to being resilient as a people. We found ways to get connected by leveraging technology. ”
Arlyssa D. Becenti covers Indigenous affairs for The Arizona Republic and azcentral. Send ideas and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @abecenti.
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