Promoting Universal Broadband Access in Indian Country With H. Rose Trostle (Part 1 of 2)

This is the first part of a two-part interview conducted with H. Rose Trostle (they/them/theirs), Research Professional at the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University, and a longtime advocate of broadband access in Indian Country. An article drawn from the interview is available on the ShapingEDU blog.

H. Rose Trostle; photo by Christopher Mitchell

Let’s start with the basics: What first drew you to efforts to support universal broadband access and access to the tools needed to effectively use the Internet for work and learning?

I have always been interested in Internet access. I grew up in a rural community without great access to the Internet, but it was functional. I learned Latin via list-serv and early videoconferencing programs. I got more involved in advocacy around Internet access when I started my first job out of college as an intern at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. That organization focuses on municipal and community networks.

Can you tell a story that shows how lack of broadband access or lack of access to the tools needed to effectively use the Internet for work and learning made this personal for you or someone close to you?

When I was in high school, I took some online courses and would routinely experience Internet connection problems. In at least one case, this was caused by my neighbor down the road cutting through the DSL line. It was a rural area, and the infrastructure was not necessarily well-marked. The Internet connection was also not always functional enough to do video conferencing that was required. It made learning very difficult. Because of this, I have been very focused on expanding broadband access (high-speed Internet access) in rural and Tribal communities.

I’m fascinated by that story of a lost connection because someone cut through the line. Can you recall the conversation you had with the neighbor and how that either brought you together a bit or contributed to some sort of division?

My parents had a conversation with the neighbor, who was apologetic, but it did not bring us closer. He had been performing work in the right of way, which was not permitted at the time. He also did not necessarily understand the importance of having an Internet connection.

Point of clarification: was this in Indian Country, and, if so, would you mind describing the setting and the community a bit?

My hometown is south of Leech Lake Reservation, in northern Minnesota. It is a rural community that primarily relies on tourism of the local lakes. Some of the nearby communities are more agricultural or connected to the Iron Range with a history of mining. My hometown has a current population of about 500 people. It has some paved roads, but mainly dirt roads. The telephone and Internet service is provided by a cooperative, and they have, in the past five years or so, upgraded to a fiber optic network.

The example of the cut line is clearly a compelling and engaging example of what you and others in rural areas face, and your description of your hometown helps create a strong image of that community. What are some of the other short- and long-term problems and challenges people in Indian Country face in terms of accessing the Internet and the tools needed to use it effectively?

Broadband access in Indian Country is not just a product of it often being rural and remote. Broadband infrastructure often relies on access to other forms of infrastructure, such as electric lines or cell towers. The short-term problem is determining what kind of technology makes sense for each community because Indian Country is not a monolithic whole. The challenges that are faced in Alaska are very different than the challenges faced in southern California. We need policies and programs that can respond to this diversity. The long-term challenge is infrastructure development generally in Indian Country, from the mapping and development of improved road infrastructure to the further expansion of water lines. We need to consider broadband infrastructure as just one piece of the puzzle and ensure that communities have the planning capacity to determine what works best. 

Another piece of this question is about what tools people need in Indian Country in order to use Internet access effectively. Some of this is basic digital literacy of how to open a web browser, how to recognize an email scam, etc. But there is also a need to recognize all the ways that people can use this to enhance what they do in their daily lives. I have heard great stories about local Facebook groups enhancing the sense of community and allowing for easier exchange of local goods and services in Indian Country. There is a need for devices beyond just cellphones—and these device needs may be different from household to household. My father much prefers a tablet or a kindle; it serves a different need than a laptop, because he’s not using the tablet for typing emails, just for reading. People need to know what options are available to figure out what best meets their community needs.

You’re making several very important points here, including one that centers on levels of engagement and empathy in any discussion about broadband access. To talk about “broadband” is to carry on a conversation that lacks emotional impact. To talk about “the ways that people can use this to enhance what they do in their daily lives” moves it into the realm of storytelling for engagement and inspiration. How do you routinely incorporate storytelling into your work as a broadband advocate?

In my work, I center the voices of the people that I interview and their perspectives on what matters to their communities. These stories form the foundation of the work that I do when I dive into data analysis or mapping. I focus on stories of solutions rather than of deficit. There are many stories about how Native Nations have built their own broadband infrastructure or improved cell service in their communities. But we often do not hear about them because they are local projects that the national media does not pick up on. When I do my work, I try to ask not just about the problems, but on what people have already tried or accomplished to change the situation, to change the narrative. Indian Country has a lot of stories of resilience and creativity, and broadband access is one of them.

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).

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