Humboldt County, Calif., is home to the Karuk tribe. Many of the tribe's members and others who live in the area have had to leave because of the lack of Internet access, which often hinders business growth.
Humboldt County, Calif., is home to the Karuk tribe. Many of the tribe's members and others who live in the area have had to leave because of the lack of Internet access, which often hinders business growth. Laura Sydell/NPR
Only 63 percent of all Americans have high-speed Internet connections. That's low compared with other countries.
But when it comes to American Indians, the Federal Communications Commission estimates that fewer than 10 percent are connected. On Tuesday, the FCC announced the appointment of a special liaison to the American Indian community to oversee efforts to get broadband to reservations.
At Risk Without Telecommunications
Many tribal communities around the United States are in remote, rural areas. Humboldt County, Calif., is home to several tribes — among them the Karuk.
In the small community of Orleans, Calif., the Karuk make up a quarter of the population of just under 1,000 people.
The tribe's IT officer, Chris Kleeman, says they even have a hard time getting phone service. "We lose our regular telephones, including 911, hundreds of times each year," Kleeman says. Last July alone, they lost phone service about 250 times, he says.
The telephone lines here can go down for hours, which puts the safety and the lives of residents at risk, says Roberta Kurgiliatti, who works for the volunteer fire department. Kurgiliatti recalls two major fires. In one, she says, the house burned to the ground because the homeowners couldn't call for help.
It was Bari Talley's house that burned down. Talley, a development trainer for the Karuk tribe, says she will never forget that day. "I was burnt pretty badly, and my kids were traumatized," she says. "It was pretty harsh. I was trying to get a hold of my husband and couldn't get a hold of him. And poor guy had to drive up to the house when it was just flattened."
There are other stories here about fires, car accidents and medical emergencies in which residents couldn't reach help.
Trying To Get Verizon's Attention
Orleans is served by Verizon. And Kleeman says he's called the company, but it doesn't even know what he is talking about.
"You get transferred and transferred and transferred, and eventually you're talking to people that don't even live in the same area and don't understand when you say that it is 50 miles to go to a store," he says.
More than 30 percent of the people in Orleans live below the poverty level, according to the California Center for Rural Policy. Many move away because they can't find work or build businesses owing to the lack of connectivity.
But Talley takes pride in her family's connection to this land and says she shouldn't be forced to leave. "My family's lived out here for thousands and thousands of years," she says. "This is our home, and just because we live out here doesn't mean we deserve less."
Just a few miles down the road, the county of Siskiyou is connected.
Cabot Winery used to have its offices in Orleans, but winery founder Kimberly Cabot says she was having a hard time expanding the business. Simple tasks like searching for the right size bottles took ages on dial-up.
So she moved Cabot's offices to Siskiyou County, where the winery gets reliable phone service and high-speed Internet for $50 a month. Cabot says the move has made a huge difference for her business. "From this far out, we can't have a tasting room," she says. "Not that many people driving by and stopping in. ... Our storefront is on the Internet."
Small businesses and consumers aren't the only ones pushing for change. Sisqtel, which is an old phone provider with a long history in Siskiyou County, tried to purchase the rights to build out phone and Internet service to Orleans. But a Sisqtel spokesperson says Verizon, which declined to be interviewed for this story, won't sell. California does gives phone companies, such as Verizon, monopolies in rural parts of the state to entice them to build out in what are considered low-profit areas.
FCC Broadband Plan Singles Out American Indians
But the cost of building compared with the return is one of the reasons American Indian communities have a long history of neglect when it comes to basic infrastructure. To help change that, at least for broadband, the FCC announced the appointment of Geoffrey Blackwell to lead its initiatives on American Indian affairs. Unfortunately, Blackwell says, the situation in Orleans is typical of American Indian country.
Kimberly Cabot says she and her husband, John, were having trouble expanding their winery business when their offices were located in Orleans, Calif. Simple tasks that needed to be done on the Internet took a long time on their dial-up connection.
Kimberly Cabot says she and her husband, John, were having trouble expanding their winery business when their offices were located in Orleans, Calif. Simple tasks that needed to be done on the Internet took a long time on their dial-up connection. Laura Sydell/NPR
"We're not just talking about rural America; we're talking about remote America," he says. "We're talking about challenging terrain. We're talking about places that, by their design, where tribes were placed, didn't necessarily benefit from certain eras of federal infrastructure development like the Eisenhower interstate system."
Blackwell's appointment is part of the FCC's National Broadband Plan, which emphasizes rural connectivity — in particular for the more than 1.4 million American Indians who live in remote areas. And the FCC has asked Congress to set aside funding to help with this part of the plan.
The Karuk tribe has used the limited federal funds already available to connect a local health clinic, the public schools and a community center. And the community center is in constant use by the local school kids. On a typical afternoon they use computers to go online and do research and play games.
But when Talley sees her kids using Google Earth she has to tell them to stop because it uses up too much bandwidth. "Then they aren't able to access their stuff at the clinic," she says.
The bandwidth is limited because access is provided by two special land lines known as T1s. They cost the tribe $1,300 a month.
Kurgiliatti says the community needs more, and she welcomes a bit of government assistance even though she knows it won't solve all their problems.
"We're going to solve our problems," she says. "But we need to have the opportunities. We need to have that chance."
Even if it's just a chance to call the fire department when your house is burning down.