Published on June 22nd, 2020
Written by Marisa Elena Duarte, MLIS, PhD, & Morgan Vigil-Hayes, PhD
What is network sovereignty in Indian Country?
The concept of network sovereignty is particularly pertinent in Indian Country, that is, through the 600+ self-governing and sovereign Native Nations within US boundaries. Through regulating and commanding the build-out and/or deployment of ICTs–especially Internet and telecommunications infrastructures–through sovereign lands and airwaves, tribal leaders, policy-makers, and IT professionals shape the means of negotiating access to and use of resources such as spectrum, licensing, equipment, training, and government programs and subsidies. For leaders of sovereign Native nations, asserting network sovereignty is important as it is simultaneously an expertise of social, political, technological, and informatic power. At this point in the history of US federal-tribal relations, access to robust broadband Internet undergirds meaningful acts of Indigenous self-determination, including the power of Indigenous leaders from multiple domains to connect and share information in support of political engagement, decolonization, community-based education, employability, anticolonial aesthetics and play, oral history and memory work, public health work, and the identity work that reifies belonging within kinship networks and through global Indigeneity.1
What are the challenges to exercising network sovereignty for tribes?
The history of colonial containment of Indigenous peoples on reservations–including displacement, forced removals and redlining–contributes to a widespread challenge throughout Indian Country. Most reservation lands are located in areas where monopolistic Internet and telecom providers either do not build-out integral middle-mile infrastructure to serve remote and rural locations, or tribal citizens reside in locations where histories of technological redlining and economic disenfranchisement make monthly home Internet plans unaffordable or unreliable for the average Native household. While the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) routinely partners with the Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), and Rural Utility Services (RUS) to subsidize costly build-outs through grant and loan programs, on the ground these programs require access to precise and accurate data about connectivity, coverage, spectrum and licensing, incumbent ISPs, and existing fiber and networks through regions on and near sovereign Native lands. At present, tribal IT directors with limited time, personnel, and resources must often ‘ground truth’ existing FCC data sets for their regions, as studies have shown that FCC data sets are inaccurate, methodologically compromised, or plainly erroneous.
Figure 1. The most recent FCC Nationwide LTE Coverage Map indicates that Santa Clara Pueblo and Rio Arriba County, New Mexico receive Internet coverage by four or more providers. Evidence from our team’s ground truth measurement campaign indicates otherwise.
Acquiring the capital and technical support to design an appropriate place-based network in Indian Country is extremely difficult when network designers and administrators must work through the pitfalls of inaccurate data. Even the most conscientious ISP and network administrative business plans can be held up for years through the process. Meanwhile, most tribes in the US go through re-elections and re-appointments of council leaders and executive leadership every two years, requiring tribal ICT champions to update and educate their new leadership about the fine points of network regulation, ICT access, and ISP business operations while their deployment projects continue at an incremental pace.
Finding evidence of erroneous coverage and spectrum data
Recently, our team has been working with the IT directors and network administrators for four sovereign Native nations and one rural county in northern New Mexico to try to extend middle-mile infrastructure across and through political jurisdictions. One challenge that our team has encountered pertains to the difficulty in locating and acquiring adequate spectrum licensing for TV white space base stations to serve locations in scenarios where fiber-to-the-home is not an immediate possibility. Our team has had to work through numerous challenges to accomplish what we initially thought would be a relatively procedural task. Contemplating the challenges helps us to discern the broader social, political, and technological implications for national misrepresentation of coverage and connectivity data, particularly in light of the social distancing requirements for preventing COVID-19 outbreaks.
Where: Rio Arriba County and Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico
When: May 2019
Motivation: Verify the accuracy of FCC LTE coverage data sets in order to plan for optimal TVWS base station placement
Challenge: Develop multiple methods for collecting ground truth measurements of LTE coverage at various locations in a rural sovereign Native nation
Workaround: Attach sensors to a vehicle (wardriving) and to an unmanned aerial device (warflying) to collect various mobile and spatial measurements of coverage and connectivity over ~120 miles in the area. Host ground truth measurement workshops with community members and an afterschool program.
- Ground truth evidence revealed that the majority of local network operators do not provide sufficient speed to meet minimal qualifications for mobile broadband downstream. Ground truth evidence also differed significantly from crowdsourced data sets and from network provider reported coverage and connectivity, which tend to overestimate coverage and connectivity.
Figure 2. Members of our research team and community IT leaders carry out a warflying campaign. (Photo by Michael Nekrasov)
- To prove eligibility for federal grants and loans, tribes must demonstrate a lack of resources, and so research efforts to secure hotspots for tribes must not interfere with statements of need in tribal grant and loan efforts to procure fiber and more robust middle-mile or first-mile infrastructure.
- There was a palpable sense of excitement about the ability to measure how well infrastructure was serving people in the region. When we were in the field measuring spectrum availability and quality of service, we were approached by many people who were enthusiastic about the effort to actually “prove” they were being underserved. People who live in the area requested that we measure quality of coverage and connectivity in various specific locations because they know they are being underserved and that their area is misrepresented in coverage maps. Kids in the after school program expressed enthusiasm about measuring network availability and performance, and intuitively understood how measurements mapped to their own experiences as users. Community members in underserved locations have a desire to hold the federal government and network providers accountable for the erroneous reporting of local Internet coverage data.
Figure 3. Santa Clara Community Library hosted a free community workshop to teach local community members, including youth, how to measure the quality of their Internet connectivity. (Photo by Michael Nekrasov)
Discussion: What are the implications of data misrepresentation for network sovereignty in Indian Country…and for ordinary end-users?
Misrepresentation of national data sets indicating quality of Internet coverage and connectivity and spectrum availability contributes to sovereign Native nations’ and rural communities’ inability to harness white space spectrum for self-determining their informatic environment. There is more than one way to acquire Internet connectivity, and tribes and rural community ICT champions have a right to acquire and apply for spectrum licensing and ownership in the 2.5 GHz range as well as TV white space licensing, experimental spectrum licensing and FM radio licensing as these communities construct novel Internet deployments that are suitable for their unique terrain and economic constraints. At this point, federal grant and loan programs are not sufficiently flexible to promote critical innovations in broadband infrastructure for rural communities and sovereign Native nations. Tribal and rural ICT response teams are thus challenged to develop effective emergency communications strategies–including hotspot networks–in spite of network maps that are incongruent with on-the-ground realities. At this point, underserved communities must invest in their own measurement campaigns and Internet quality evaluation efforts, or they must retain hard lessons from emergency response efforts as part of their collective tacit knowledge.
For ordinary end-users, misrepresentation of data about Internet availability impedes the quality of their Internet experience. A college student returning to their home in a rural community or on a reservation might bring their laptop expecting to be able to do online coursework only to find that the upload and download speeds prevent their ability to keep up with their class. At the community level, if a national data set indicates that a single home in a census block has broadband Internet access, it can render the entire census block ineligible for funding for broadband infrastructure, even if all other homes do not have Internet access, and even if the level of coverage in real life is of low quality.
When it comes to network sovereignty in Indian Country, we need to advocate for accurate data sets and funding to support ground truth campaigns in the spirit of citizen science. We need to advocate for federal grant and loan opportunities that empower rural and tribal communities to support local Internet innovation that will not preclude their eligibility for fiber-to-the-home applications or other partnerships that will ultimately allow them to build a durable Internet infrastructure that is the right fit for their people, their places, and the terrain, values, and livelihoods that distinguish rural and Indigenous ways of life.
Figure 4. Members of our research team and Santa Clara IT leadership survey the high points and features of the terrain for network planning. (Photo by Michael Nekrasov)
Marisa Duarte is an assistant professor with the program in Justice and Social Inquiry through the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. She studies digital technologies as forms of social resistance and endurance. Her current research is on the social and political impacts of information and communication technologies in Indigenous communities. She also advocates for intellectual freedom and social justice, especially in Native American and borderland communities.
Morgan Vigil-Hayes is an assistant professor of computer science in the School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Systems at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, AZ. Her research uses methodologies from computer networks, HCI, and data science to characterize the usage and performance of networked systems in community contexts and design novel network architectures that support community information needs in challenged environments. She received her PhD in computer science from UC Santa Barbara where she was advised by Elizabeth Belding.
- For further discussion of these issues, see Marisa Duarte, Network Sovereignty: Building the Internet Across Indian Country, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017.