The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we work, get an education, get health care, buy groceries, apply for assistance, search for jobs and more. Affordable, reliable internet has become essential for safely accomplishing many of these basic tasks that are normally done in person. As we see rapidly changing developments in our efforts to fight this pandemic, high-speed connectivity allows us to better communicate how to access services and stay safe.
This has been a challenge on our Cherokee Nation reservation, especially in our many rural communities. Hundreds of Cherokee families live in places without access to affordable, reliable broadband. We are currently surveying Cherokee households to better understand where the biggest gaps may exist.
While we investigate the larger problem, we are moving immediately to make sure our K-12 students can access the internet for their education. Even before the pandemic, many students were using some combination of in-person and virtual learning. A strong education of our children is essential for their future and the future of our thriving Nation.
That’s why we have launched the Respond, Recover and Rebuild Mobile Hotspot Connectivity Program to deliver mobile Wi-Fi hotspots to Cherokee households lacking internet connectivity, with priority to households with K-12 students. We’ve partnered with AT&T to get these mobile hotspots into the hands of Cherokee families as quickly as possible.
We know that a mobile hotspot isn’t a long-term solution for reliable broadband access, but it helps fill the immediate need as we work toward long-term solutions. We are also exploring the use of technology that can be easily deployed at locations across the reservation, where people can get internet access while remaining in their vehicle. This would allow Cherokee families to safely connect while social distancing, which is more important than ever with the nationwide spike in COVID-19 cases. We plan to have a public announcement soon.
Cherokee Nation is working diligently to find ways of partnering with existing service providers throughout the Cherokee Nation to expand quality service at an affordable cost. There are a number of providers deploying fiber-to-the-home throughout the reservation, and we want to be there to help and ensure they are reaching even our most rural Cherokee communities. Enhancing broadband capabilities will positively change how Cherokees communicate for decades to come.
In August, the Cherokee Nation secured a National Tribal Broadband Grant to study broadband accessibility and potential for growth. We are working collaboratively with the Federal Communications Commission to strengthen broadband in Cherokee Nation communities and all of Indian Country. Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Tina Glory Jordan is a member of the FCC’s Intergovernmental Advisory Committee, which makes recommendations on telecommunication issues for state, city and tribal governments. Cherokee Nation Businesses Chief Information Officer and Senior Vice President of Information Technology Todd Gourd is part of the FCC’s Disaster Response and Recovery Working Group on the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee, and Cherokee Nation Registrar Frankie Hargis serves on the FCC’s Native Nations Communications Task Force.
With this ongoing pandemic, we know quality internet access will allow more elders to see a doctor through telehealth, more students to learn virtually, and more families to remain connected to the community. Improving internet on our reservation also helps connect us with other Cherokees across the world, so we can all stay connected through our culture, community, heritage and language. The digital divide has plagued Indian Country and the Cherokee Nation for too long, but our work to close that divide will help us emerge from this pandemic even stronger and readier for the future.
Chuck Hoskin Jr.