Nowhere is the lack of broadband Internet more pervasive than on our nation’s Indian reservations. According to the latest statistics from the Federal Communications Commission, only 49 percent of Montanans who live on tribal land have access to a broadband connection. Compare that to the nation, where 92 percent of Americans have broadband access, and to Montana as a whole, where that figure stands at 77 percent. Clearly, more needs to be done.
While access to broadband has been slowly expanding into more rural areas of Montana, the fact that so many Montanans – and especially Native Montanans – don’t have access is a serious problem.
Those Montanans without broadband are denied a multitude of opportunities that can only be accessed with a high-speed Internet connection. In fact, with our society and economy increasingly moving online, the magnitude of this problem is increasing.
But many are working to address the digital divide. The most recent bright spot is a partnership announced between Native Network and the Microsoft Airband Initiative that will bring broadband access to over 70,000 people in Montana and Washington. In Montana, the partnership will focus on the Flathead Indian Reservation.
This partnership is important for two reasons. First, it’s expanding broadband access in an underserved area. But moreover, this project will utilize a new technology called TV White Spaces, which is way of delivering broadband over the airwaves on unutilized television spectrum.
TV White Spaces have been in development for over a decade, but are just now being used for commercial applications. The Native Network pilot project could be an important proof of concept that leads to the maturation of a technology that holds the potential to bring broadband access to historically underserved areas.
Other types of over-the-airwaves internet service exist, but White Spaces allow for connections over much greater geographic areas, and are not impeded by obstacles like hills or trees. The technology could be a game changer.
These are the types of innovations that are needed to close the Digital Divide that separates urban and rural areas. Montana Internet Service providers have already done yeoman’s work in building out fiber-optic networks, which are the gold standard for broadband delivery. However, there are diminishing returns for fiber in areas that are more sparsely populated or poorer, and eventually it no longer pencils out continue expanding broadband. That is where a technology like TV White Spaces could provide the needed complement to fiber to reach those remaining households.
The private sector is driving deployment of broadband to the areas where it is lacking. Montana’s rural telecommunications cooperatives, and initiatives like those being spearheaded by Microsoft and the Native Network, deserve a lot of credit for delivering broadband to rural Montana. But more can be done, especially at the regulatory level in Washington, D.C. Final rules for TV White Spaces have still not been completed by the FCC, which has delayed investment and maturation of the technology. Let’s all encourage our elected leaders to remove that type of roadblock that stands in the way of broadband expansion – tens of thousands of Montanans are depending on it.
Sen. Dan Salomon