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

June 23, 2021

This is the second half 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.

In your paper “Building Indigenous Future Zones: Four Tribal Broadband Case Studies,” you tell some wonderful stories about successful efforts to create broadband access within those four communities. What common elements string those success stories together?

H. Rose Trostle; photo by Christopher Mitchell

Within each of these communities, there are people who took up the challenge and saw opportunity there. They did not just focus on what they did not have, but on what they could do with better broadband access. This enabled them to write grants to show proof-of-concept projects, and they leveraged these initial successes to get larger funding opportunities. They also worked with the community to determine what the community needed and wanted. It was not about improving Internet access for the sake of improving infrastructure metrics, but about what community members wanted to do with better connectivity. The IT [Information Technology] and Planning professionals whom I interviewed really highlighted the importance of understanding the community strengths and how they could get to better Internet service with these strengths. They also were realistic about their financial plans, which meant they could develop networks that made sense for their communities.

A theme that runs through the stories in “Building Indigenous Future Zones” is “patience.” Success often required a decade or more of work and community-building at a variety of levels—which is something any broadband advocate needs to understand. Any tips to broadband advocates in how to develop and use that sense of patience to their advantage so they don’t become discouraged over the long period of time success requires?

It is important to stay grounded in the community, to be aware of how the community changes over time. There is always work to be done, and so it is good to focus your attention on the immediate needs of the community. This may be anything from distributing devices to coordinating with leadership for more opportunities. When funding opportunities are available, there is a better chance of success if plans are already in place and are “shovel-ready.” It is also helpful to stay connected to the wider digital-inclusion advocacy community to hear stories from across the country and to generate new ideas of what can be possible. There is always progress in little ways that might not first be evident, so it is necessary to take a moment to reassess how far you’ve come in a year, five years, or ten years.

Whose work in fostering broadband access do you admire—and why?

I have been really impressed with the work of Matthew Rantanen from Tribal Digital Village. He is always willing to speak with Federal and Tribal government officials on Tribal broadband. He is quite an advocate for broadband and seems to always be at the forefront of broadband advocacy groups. I’ve had the opportunity to talk to him a few times, and I have always come away with more ideas and more motivation to do the work that needs to be done. He is sometimes called the Cyber Warrior.

Marisa Elena Duarte, in her book Network Sovereignty: Building the Internet Across Indian Country, has a section on “Common Impacts of Tribal Broadband Deployment Efforts” (pp. 101-103) in which she suggests that broadband “champions” including Rantanen, Valerie Fast Horse, Brian Tagaban, Gregg Bourland, and J.D. Williams, have “endured failed attempts and slow starts” in promoting broadband access in Indian Country. She then adds “It is important to frame failures and slow starts in a positive way, as opportunities to learn how and where to improve operations.” Can you tell a story about how you or a colleague have framed failures and slow starts in a way that produced positive results?

The story that comes to mind is from my conversation with Jason Hollinday at the Fond du Lac Band’s Planning Division. They spent years at Fond du Lac trying to develop a broadband plan, and they kept being turned down for grant funding. These slow starts, however, made them recognize the importance of describing what the community actually wanted from a broadband network. The planning division got more feedback from the community members and realized that they needed to dream bigger for their network. The wireless network that they had initially proposed would not work for the whole community because of the terrain and the capacity limits. They needed a fiber network, and by learning from all their failed starts, they were able to write a successful grant to secure funding for a fiber network.

Drawing upon your extensive experience, what would you suggest individuals can do to support broadband access locally, regionally, and nationally?

Locally—Talk to your government officials. Talk to your neighbors. Talk to visitors to your community. Find out what your community values in an Internet  connection. Get involved with local advocacy groups for digital inclusion to distribute devices or offer digital skills trainings. Learn more about different types of devices and different types of broadband technologies.

Regionally—You should encourage your local officials to work with other communities nearby. It is important to keep an eye on funding opportunities and to make sure that smaller communities are not left out of broadband expansion plans. Keep an eye out for state funding opportunities as well.

Nationally—Keep track of what’s happening at the FCC. Remember that your local officials know your story, but that national organizations often do not. Share your ideas and your thoughts because they are valuable. 

What have I not asked that you hoped to cover?

Something that is very important that we haven’t fully touched on here: broadband access in Indian Country is getting better. We do not have great data available, but it has improved over the years. And one of the reasons for that is Native Nations building their own networks or collaborating with other local governments or local cooperatives to build this infrastructure. This is an exciting time with the recent allocation of the 2.5GHz Spectrum to Native Nations. There is more opportunity than ever for  improved broadband access in Indian Country. We are all learning and building together.

An afterthought: The reference to Rantanen as “cyber warrior” made me smile and provides a nice thematic link back to <a rel="noreferrer noopener" href="http://&lt;!– wp:paragraph –> <p><strong>An afterthought: The reference to Rantanen as “cyber warrior” made me smile and provide a nice thematic link back to my most recent broadband access interview—Gina Millsap, who jokingly referred to herself as a “broadband avenger.” Looks as if we are assembling a wonderful group of broadband superheroes. Thanks for your help on that effort. You may be on your way to becoming the Nick Fury of broadband! </strong></p> my most recent broadband access interview—Gina Millsap, who jokingly referred to herself as a “broadband avenger.” Looks as if we are assembling a wonderful group of broadband superheroes. Thanks for your help on that effort. You may be on your way to becoming the Nick Fury of broadband! 

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


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

June 23, 2021

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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