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Mark Duggan talks to Darrah Blackwater about her work to bring fast internet to tribal lands.

Darrah Blackwater sees radio waves as a natural resource. The Navajo Nation member and recent law school graduate works to bring high-speed internet to rural tribal lands. Her efforts focus on what she calls “spectrum sovereignty,” or the recognition of tribal spectrum rights.

“That means that the radio waves on the land have been on the land since what we call in federal Indian law, ‘time immemorial.’ Which means it’s been there as long as the land, the mountains, the water, the air has been there.”

Those radio waves are key to bringing “over-the-air” broadband to Native communities. According to the American Library Association, seven in 10 rural tribal lands lack access to broadband.

Installing rooftop internet

Darrah Blackwater installing equipment for broadband internet. (Photo courtesy of Darrah Blackwater)

For Native peoples struggling through a pandemic, the lack of connectivity can be a matter of life and death. With good internet, a person with health problems can see a doctor from home using “telemedicine.” Without it, they’re forced to travel to a clinic, risking themselves and others.

The digital divide, as it’s known, is a major impediment to health and economic development in many rural areas, and not only on Native lands.

Blackwater recently traveled to the Navajo Nation to help install equipment for over-the-air internet. But only after the Federal Communications Commission made the radio waves, also known as spectrum, available to Navajo organizations to use for internet. Historically, applications by Indian Country to obtain part of the spectrum from the FCC move slowly, if at all.

In 2018, the agency estimated that 35% of Americans living on tribal lands lack broadband service. The sprawling Navajo Nation has one of the lowest broadband connectivity rates among tribes but is also suffering from one of the country’s highest COVID-19 infection rates.

According to Blackwater, the Federal Communications Commission “dragged its feet” authorizing the part of the frequency spectrum needed to provide wireless broadband more of the Navajo Nation.

It took a crisis to get them to move, but generally, she notes that “tribes have had a lot of trouble being able to access the spectrum on and over their lands.”

Darrah Blackwater recently penned an opinion article for a Phoenix news organization, where she called on the FCC to “act on tribal access every day, not just when the world is in a crisis.”

She calls on the agency to recognize spectrum rights so that each tribe can manage them as needed. That could include tribal-owned entities providing broadband to its members.

The FCC is currently running a program to let tribes apply for free 2.5GHz spectrum licenses. The 2.5 GHz spectrum is ideal for wireless internet because of its ability to cover large geographic areas. But it’s also valuable and highly sought after by large telecom companies. Tribes have until August to claim spectrum. Anything left over will be auctioned off to corporations.

The problem now, according to a recent High Country News article, is that many tribes are more focused on preventing the spread of the coronavirus than with applying for their share of the spectrum.

I’m reporting on the impact of the coronavirus in the Four Corners region for KSUT Public Radio.
Stories were previously published by KSUT. Find story archives at 
Open Range News.

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