The collapse of affordable internet will hit indigenous communities the hardest

The collapse of affordable internet will hit indigenous communities the hardest

Located next to the St. Lawrence in northern New York and across the US-Canada border, the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation has nurtured generations of native artists.

Kelly Back, a member of the Akwesasne Mohawk, creates the traditional beaded belts, sashes, purses and girdles worn by the tribe’s approximately 13,000 members at weddings, graduations and other ceremonies.

When he first started in 2014, Back’s artwork was mostly distributed within his own quarter. But after he got on social media, his small business exploded.

“My business wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for social media, because I didn’t just get a following in our community,” Back told CNN. “I gained followers and customers in other communities around the world.”

Back is expanding his global reach with an Instagram video that walks him through his production process, showing how he sketches custom designs on paper before painstakingly stringing the beads together on his loom.

Back estimates he makes five figures a year from his artwork. So when the US government offered to help with the cost of his internet service with a credit of up to $75 a month, he was grateful.

“That’s some treats right there,” he said. “Any little bit of money helps, especially for the indigenous community, because many of our people are artisans and they depend on their cultural artwork to survive.”

Now, however, that aid is coming to an end, threatening the livelihoods of indigenous creators like Back. In a few weeks, the two-year-old US Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) is set to run out of funds, and Congress doesn’t seem likely to authorize more. The expected collapse this month of what US officials have described as the largest internet affordability program in history will plunge more than 23 million low-income US households into sudden financial trouble.

None could be worse off than the original users of the program, who deserve the biggest benefits and live in some of the most remote parts of the country. Native American communities may be particularly affected by ACP deaths, as many tribal reservations are in areas that require very expensive building infrastructure and have lower population densities than in many rural parts of America. Poverty often compounds this issue, putting internet plans out of reach for many tribal households.

A tremendous impact on tribal communities
The end of ACP would affect nearly 1 in 5 US households, or an estimated 60 million people. Many Americans could see a spike in their internet bills or may be forced to drop their plans altogether if they can’t afford to pay. The FCC has already begun winding down the program and announced last month that recipients will only get partial benefits in May before ACP is shut down forever.

Several US lawmakers have proposed bipartisan legislation to reform the program, but the looming obstacle is House Speaker Mike Johnson, who has given no indication that he would be willing to hold a vote to approve more funding. On Wednesday, Pennsylvania Democratic Senator John Fetterman became the latest to introduce an ACP funding bill.

Fetterman’s previously unreported legislation, the Promoting Affordable Connectivity Act, would allow the Federal Communications Commission to borrow up to $25 billion from the US Treasury to temporarily extend the program. It also seeks to resolve future funding uncertainty by removing ACP from the congressional budget fight entirely — proposing to place it under existing FCC funds that subsidize internet for schools and libraries and other low-income households.

While many older and rural Americans may experience financial hardship as a result of the ACP collapse, indigenous communities could be worse off.

“In most of the 500-plus tribes in this country, the infrastructure is still 50 years behind,” said Jonathan Nez, former president of the Navajo Nation, in an interview. “I’ve said this many times: 30% to 40% of our Navajo people don’t have water or electricity.”

That harsh reality is reflected in the way the ACP distributes the benefits: Low-income US households are eligible for a credit of up to $30 a month on their internet bill. ACP recipients on tribal lands, however, may receive as much as 2.5 times as much, up to $75 per month.

That makes the loss of subsidies even more painful for tribal households, said Loren King, a sales executive at MBO, an Oklahoma-based telecommunications provider. While millions of Americans may soon see their internet bills rise by about $360 a year, that figure could be closer to $900 a year for some indigenous families, he told CNN.

About 329,500 tribal households are currently enrolled in ACP, FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, one of the program’s vocal supporters, said in an interview.

About 90% of those households are concentrated in five US states, in descending order: Oklahoma, Arizona, New Mexico, Alaska and South Dakota.

“Those are the states where we’ve worked really hard to make great strides in getting these tribal registrations,” Starks said, “and I really want us to continue that momentum. And that means making sure this program continues.”

A lifeline to preserve society and culture
Like most Americans who benefit from ACP, tribal users of the program rely on internet access to further their education, work remotely and run small businesses. But the economic opportunities provided by the internet are also more significant.

Because tribal members can now work remotely, they are no longer forced to move from their communities in search of opportunities, they told CNN. Instead, they can live closer to their tribal elders and participate in the culture of their people.

“One of the most remarkable things [about having internet access] is the increase in our ability to build programs and engage community members in the preservation of language and culture,” said Allyson Mitchell, general manager of Mohawk Networks, an Internet service provider (ISP) owned and operated by the Akwesasne Mohawk tribe.

For example, Mitchell said, after decades of declining Mohawk fluency, more and more tribal members are now engaging in online language immersion.

“We have adult students who may have understood the language as a child because their grandparents spoke to them in Mohawk, and now they’re coming back to this immersion program” to learn to speak the language themselves, Mitchell added. “When you have a multi-generational home, or elderly people living alone, the ability to communicate and stay connected [is critical]…. Cultural and language preservation programs have grown because of our ability to have access to high-speed internet.”

The pressure of the Covid-19 pandemic is weighing on indigenous communities, said Nez, who resigned as Navajo President in 2023 and is now running for a US House seat in Arizona. But if there’s an advantage for Navajo members, he added, “there’s a renaissance, really, in that Covid time.”

The ACP and its pandemic-era predecessor, the Emergency Broadband Benefits Program, are helping Navajo members stay connected despite the lockdown, leading to renewed engagement with Navajo culture.

“There is a renaissance in our teaching, our learning, our culture, our traditions, our language,” Nez said. “The Affordability Connectivity program helps our seniors, and now some of them are comfortable using electronic devices, and they’re even using them for telehealth where they don’t have to travel.”

According to Navajo government documents, a total of 40,000 Navajo members have registered with the ACP as of 2023.

A feeling of betrayal
ACP’s impending death caused Derrick VanSoolen’s phone to ring.

VanSoolen’s job until recently was to help members of the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma to enroll in federal programs. Lately, however, a flurry of calls from anxious Choctaws has overwhelmed VanSoolen’s phone lines.

“A lot of people are worried because they’re going to lose their internet,” VanSoolen said. “I get a lot of senior citizens who call, because they are on a fixed income and [ACP] is the only way they can communicate with their children who are still on the phone.

ah moved. I work with many single parents whose children rely on the internet to continue their education.”

This internet connection “is everything to them,” VanSoolen added, “and they’re really worried that if this goes away, they’re going to lose that and it’s going to hurt them.”

Several tribal governments have explored the feasibility of recreation get ACP for themselves. But it will be very expensive. For the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, a federally recognized tribe in Minnesota, officials estimate that building their own version of ACP would cost $100,000 a year, or about 60% of the tribe’s entire current telecommunications budget.

“This sector of the reservation that I work on is 65 miles from any town with a population of 5,000 or more,” said Randy Long, director of information technology for the Bois Forte tribal government.

While the tribe has the resources to step in where the US government backs down, it hasn’t addressed the sense of betrayal that ending the program will evoke among many indigenous communities, multiple people told CNN.

“Even if [ACP] is hopefully restored, even then, will we see 100% of the people who were on board before that coming back?” said Gary Johnson, general manager of Paul Bunyan Communications, a Minnesota-based telecommunications cooperative serving tribal residents. “I’m worried about a loss of trust there, especially perhaps in the tribal community, that we may not be able to restore.”

On the other hand, some say, the collapse of the ACP will be another stain on the US government’s performance record for centuries of breaking promises to tribal communities.

Back told CNN that as he watches the US government shut down programs that help keep his small businesses afloat, he may now question any future efforts to restore ACP.

“Even with this program, the money coming back, I’m always going to be hesitant to wonder if it’s going to be taken away from us again, you know, because that trust is gone,” Back added. “So I really hope they think about this again. Give it another chance and stick to their word, to support us, to help us. Because we are human too.”

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