Petra Wilson, Oglala Lakota, of Tribal25.
Broadband internet services in Indian Country
Tribes step up and take command
Thursday, September 24, 2020
Native Sun News Today Health & Environment Editor

RAPID CITY – Petra Wilson drew a breath of satisfaction on September 15 when the federal government reported approving 157 applications for tribal entities to take command of rural broadband internet services.

The Oglala Lakota consultant on Indian education had worked day and night all year to help her tribe and others qualify to become Federal Communications Commission (FCC) licensees of their own shares of the wireless spectrum.

As a liaison between private contractors and tribal representatives, Wilson alerted and assisted officials across Indian country to take advantage of the commission’s unprecedented free offer for tribes to control much of the Educational Broadband Service in the 2.5 gigahertz (GHz) band.

For Wilson, the issue was “homework inequities” affecting reservation students. “Having access to reliable connectivity is a necessity, not a luxury anymore,” she told the Native Sun News Today. And, she said, “It’s going to give tribes control over it.”

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She recalled growing up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the 1980s and having to refer to a 1970s encyclopedia to do her school assignments, while students in far-off cities had access to a wealth of digital knowledge via computers in their classrooms.

Years later, while raising her nine children in Henderson, Nevada, she worked for 15 years as an Indian education opportunities program volunteer leader in the fifth-largest U.S. public school district.

She got started when hers was among only two of 280 Native families invited who showed up at a picnic for the cause.

Admitting, “I am kind of an advocate at heart,” she lobbied for tribal self-determination and Native rural advancement, asking, “How do you work in a global context, if you’re stuck in the 90s?”

Even in 2020, she reminds the urban dweller, the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s Prairie Wind Casino has no internet and you still have to “go up on the hill” to get a cell phone signal at many reservation spots, — should you be so fortunate as to be in possession of a functioning portable electronic device.

So, when she saw advertisements for a job opening to encourage tribal control of the radio frequencies that transmit the signals, she knew she wanted her tribe involved and successfully applied for the job of outreach coordinator, she said.

She asked her father, Oglala Sioux tribal lawyer Mario Gonzalez, if her tribe wanted to apply and immediately set to working with the administration.

“Kids were an important factor, in my mind,” she said. “I wanted the kids to be able to compete.”

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Soon other tribes were booking consulting sessions, so she enlisted her daughters Harmani and Halina Wilson to help her in the business.

While she was bringing tribes on board the program, she learned about many instances of what she calls “the homework gap” caused by lack of wireless connectivity in rural tribal areas.

“In the majority, its either very expensive to access or they don’t have the ability to bring it in,” she said.

In one instance, a school received a donation of hot-spot devices but had no signal to use them. In another, the internet was so expensive that families pooled their money for one subscription and all the students went to one home to connect to it after school, she recounted.

On tribal lands, only 65 percent of the population has access to broadband, according to MuralNet, the non-profit company that contracted with Wilson. Half of tribal rural households don’t even have access to a fixed wireless internet provider, which is over twice the rate of their non-tribal counterparts, it says.

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