By Rickey Armstrong Sr.
Millions of New Yorkers are just now discovering what Native people have known for far too long: Reliable online service is a necessity, not a privilege. Without it, individuals and businesses cannot succeed in the modern world.
The pandemic-induced phenomenon of working from home and communicating nearly exclusively online has only intensified the digital divide experienced by the Seneca Nation and its fellow tribes across the country. Federal and state governments have long ignored this problem, which is consistent with a broader culture of disinvestment and mistreatment.
Compared to the Federal Communications Commission’s national average of 92.3%, only 35% of tribal lands in rural America have broadband access and roughly 18% of reservation residents have no access to the internet or cell service whatsoever.
On the Cattaraugus and Allegany territories alone, well over 1,000 students lack internet access, according to Seneca Nation data. Some members of Native tribes have even set up Wi-Fi hotspots near government offices or in fast food chain parking lots to ensure that their children can get online and not fall further behind their non-Native peers.
As policymakers and elected officials double down on closing this digital divide in New York, it is critical that underserved rural areas like our territories do not get left behind. It’s time for the state Legislature to hold public hearings and task force meetings on this issue with Native people across the state. This is not a radical idea. In fact, it’s one that would garner widespread support.
The federal government is supporting Native tribes by providing funding aimed at improving broadband service on their lands. Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a $4.3 million grant to the Seneca Nation through its ReConnect Pilot Program, which, when coupled with a $1.5 million investment by the Nation itself, will establish a fiber-to-home broadband network on the Cattaraugus Territory.
That’s a significant step in the right direction, but merely focusing on today’s technology challenges only sets up our underserved communities to fall further behind in the future.
It is crucial that today’s investments not only achieve the goal of universal service, but also help close the next digital divide before it occurs. That means laying the groundwork for next-generation connectivity – 5G – which will bring faster and more reliable online access to all corners of the state.
We will continue to press state and federal lawmakers to ensure that future generations of Seneca – and tribal communities across New York and the U.S. – are given every technological opportunity to succeed.
Rickey Armstrong Sr. is president of Seneca Nation.