AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's time now for All Tech Considered.
(SOUNDBITE OF ULRICH SCHNAUSS' "NOTHING HAPPENS IN JUNE")
CORNISH: This month, we're looking at the tech issues that most affect rural America. And today, we go to a remote place where one of the most isolated Native American tribes is finally getting more broadband Internet service, and it hasn't been easy. But if the Havasupai can install reliable high-speed Internet at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, they could bridge the digital divide for other tribes. From member station KJZZ, Laurel Morales reports.
LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: The Havasupai Reservation is only accessible by foot, by mule or by helicopter.
(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER BUZZING)
MORALES: It's a five-minute flight from the rim of the canyon to Supai Village, where 450 tribal members live in small homes made of panel siding and materials that can be easily hauled to the canyon floor. It's no wonder Internet access has been a challenge. But recently, the Havasupai have had some help from the Oakland-based nonprofit MuralNet.
MARIEL TRIGGS: Oh, yeah. Look at that. We got bars. Dang.
MORALES: MuralNet's Mariel Triggs trains the Havasupai how to install a network box outside a home. Triggs, with the help of Flagstaff-based Niles Radio, built what's called a microwave hop from towers at the rim that beam a signal down to Supai Village.
TRIGGS: And we were able to put up the network in just a few hours for less than the cost of a Toyota Corolla, frankly.
MORALES: Triggs says the geography wasn't the issue. It was policy holding up the process. The Federal Communications Commission finally granted the tribe a permanent license last spring. Now the Havasupai want to increase the signal, but they've run into another hurdle. Another Internet provider says it may be interested in bringing broadband here. So now the FCC is dealing with concerns over competition.
TRIGGS: We have the funds. We have the money. We could do it. We could put the materials that are needed in the towers and connect everything, but we have to wait for all this policy stuff again to sort out.
MORALES: Triggs says she's worried it could take years.
TRIGGS: It just kills me because I feel like policy is actually causing the digital divide right now rather than helping to fix it.
MORALES: Currently, only seven Havasupai families can connect, including the Balderramas. Sally Balderrama's son Evan is 9 but tests at the kindergarten level. A therapist flies down into the canyon twice a month to work with Evan and other kids with special needs.
SALLY BALDERRAMA: It's not enough time. You know, it's not enough. I wish they can stay at least for, you know, three to four days.
MORALES: Thanks to the new Internet connection, the therapist can work with Evan three times a week via Skype.
Have you noticed a difference in Evan?
BALDERRAMA: Oh, yeah. Yeah. And the Internet is good - it is - but we have times, you know, when it pauses, and it spins. And, you know, that's kind of frustrating.
MORALES: One of the people trying to get the tribe more reliable high-speed Internet for kids with special needs is Councilwoman Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss. She points to a whole host of other reasons - so teens can take high school courses online instead of being sent away to boarding schools, so they can have better emergency communication during one of their many flash floods and for better health care.
OPHELIA WATAHOMIGIE-CORLISS: We have different generations of telemedicine equipment that have just been sitting around collecting dust because it's been unable to be established. Broadband speeds, high-speed Internet - those things are specific.
MORALES: Meanwhile, the FCC estimates at least a third of people living on tribal lands don't have access to high-speed Internet, so the agency is giving tribes first dibs on applying for available broadband spectrum ahead of commercial companies at the beginning of 2020. But the problem is this. The FCC would require the tribes to build their infrastructure - the towers and antennas - in half the time required of major telecom companies.
For NPR News, I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHAKEY GRAVES SONG, "IF NOT FOR YOU")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.