The reopening of the 2.5 GHz spectrum (often referred to as the Educational Broadband Services or EBS) for use in Tribal lands, the versatility of private wireless 5G networks, supportive non-profit institutions, and increased availability of government funds to close the digital divide has renewed interest in building mobile broadband networks in Native communities.

Network operators encounter formidable challenges in Tribal territories due to terrain, spectrum allocation fragmentation, infrastructure development cost, and right-of-way laws. However, compared to cable networks, mobile communications are well-suited to provide solutions in demanding Tribal environments at a lower expense—private networks tailor networks for the terrain, consolidate the spectrum, and bypass most right-of-way limits.

Concurrently, the demand for network services has also grown with increasing recourse to remote and immersive learning, increased utilization of telehealth, and the spread of e-commerce to micro businesses in Native communities.

Closing the Digital Divide Brooks No Delay

The digital divide in Tribal regions is a canyon that has become intolerable, as dispersed and thinly populated communities acutely feel the need for digital services. The stark chasm is evident – 17 million out of the 21 million people who lack fixed-line broadband access live in rural areas. (That’s one-third of all rural Americans.) The issue is twice as bad in rural Tribal lands, where two-thirds of people lack high-speed Internet connectivity. According to a 2019 study by the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University, eight percent of people living on reservations have no home Internet access.

Climbing Canyons with Mobile Broadband Networks

Tribal communities have attempted to build cable broadband networks to bridge the digital divide for decades to little avail. Fiber networks are expensive and economically unviable beyond some clusters such as libraries, schools, and community centers. Moreover, funding alone does not overcome the formidable challenges of the terrain and barriers created by ownership rights to land.

The following are the key obstacles:

  • National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), Archeological Resource Protection Act (ARPA), and the Native American Graves Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) involve a complex process to create right-of-way through a federal process administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
  • Poor federal recordkeeping has left the location of other utilities on Tribal lands, such as water lines and gas lines, poorly documented or entirely unknown. As a result, additional surveys precede network construction on such grounds to avoid unintentional damage.
  • Fragmented ownership of parcels of land and right-of-way consent is required for 51 percent of the landowners to conform to Federal law, increasing legal costs.
  • Satellite communications by HughesNet are the most widely available, and the download speeds average 1.1 Mbps. However, the provision of such a service incurs high costs averaging $3.80 per Mbps ($0.31 to $0.43 for typical cities with broadband infrastructure).

Kajeet’s Private 5G Solutions

Kajeet’s Private 5G network overcomes several barriers to expanding connectivity in the unique circumstances of Tribal regions. First, unlike cable and satellite broadband, it targets the community it serves and chooses network parameters proportionate to their needs. For example, instead of extending an existing network in an urban area to a remote Tribal population cluster, it can use fixed wireless access in the Tribal region and extend coverage to a home with a user device.

Kajeet’s Private 5G wireless network can overcome several critical challenges in Tribal lands by avoiding the costly stalemate of right-of-way and regulatory roadblocks with over-the-air communications. In addition, it can use existing infrastructure – such as cable connections – to extend coverage with relatively cheaper microcells built on top of community buildings with antennas instead of building macro cells.

Kajeet’s Private 5G wireless network can also overcome the challenges of terrain that prevent line-of-sight communications. For example, small cells are more easily custom-designed for non-line-of-sight communications skirting around trees, hills, or rocks.

Access to adequate electricity and inefficient utilization are barriers to building mobile networks. Kajeet’s Private Network saves electricity by micro-targeting population clusters and delivering telecom services with small cells. Kajeet can also select radio devices for its private networks that can be put into sleep mode when idle.

Accelerated Momentum for Tribe-owned Networks

The FCC in 2020 announced that federally recognized American Indian Tribes and Alaska Native villages could obtain an unassigned 2.5 GHz spectrum over their lands. Previously, it was denied and left unutilized because it changed hands and was sold to telcos who used it for commercial purposes. The grant of licenses is subject to the build-out requirements of the FCC, which are as below.

Performance Requirements for Permanent Allocation of  2.5 GHz Spectrum

Population Coverage

  • 50 percent population coverage within two years
  • 80 percent population coverage within five years

Links Density

  • 20 links per million persons in 2 years
  • 40 links per million

Source: Wilkinson Barker Knauer LLP

Notes: In the event of a delay, the spectrum allocation requirements must be fulfilled within four years, or they could be revoked.

Credible telecom vendors like Kajeet can assist Tribal leadership in fulfilling these requirements by building networks in time and validating that they conform to FCC directives.

The Utilization of the 2.5 GHz EBS Spectrum

Today, about 554 Tribes in the United States have access to 2.5 GHz spectrum within their Tribal territory. On July 10, 2019, the FCC passed an order that enables federally-recognized Tribal Nations to claim unlicensed 2.5 GHz spectrum over their lands before competitive bidding begins. In addition, for financing telecom projects, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration program awards up to $1 billion in Tribal broadband projects.

The recent status of applications for new issues of the EBS spectrum is as below:

See: FCC 2.5GHz Rural Tribal Window Webpage

The Demand for Wireless Networks in Native Communities

The demand for networks owned and controlled by Native communities has grown with the increasing use of remote education. Higher incidence of chronic and mental illness and lower access to traditional health services in remote regions have increased the awareness of the role telehealth could play in Native communities. There is also an increasing need to connect Tribal micro-businesses to the cloud and Internet to open markets for their products, especially indigenous arts and crafts. Local leaders are collaborating with non-profits to bring technologies customized for the needs of their communities. Private mobile networks, such as those built by Kajeet, are expected to expand coverage significantly as the fiber networks are too costly to provide coverage to sparsely populated regions.

In Conclusion

Wireless broadband communications with private networks can play a critical role in achieving the long-sought goal of ending the digital divide in Tribal regions. The daunting goal of expanding coverage in remote areas at lower costs with scarce skilled workforce resources is achieved economically through private networks. These solutions circumvent the need to spend on resolving legal disputes over right-of-way or ownership rights on the land, and the network signals are also better targeted for clusters of populations to lower costs. It can also side-step barriers created by terrain.

The demand for remote services—education, healthcare, and business—is also more pressing in these regions and frequently needs customization of network services to meet their unique needs. Kajeet Private 4G/5G networks are versatile to adapt and meet demanding costs and service differentiation constraints. Learn more about Kajeet Private 5G or reach out to set up a consultation with us.