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After federal investment, supply chain jams and labor shortages still hinder tribal broadband access

Savannah Maher Apr 6, 2023
Heard on:
To boost broadband access, tribal nations must compete with states that are also flush with federal funds to purchase the same supplies. trumzz/Getty Images

After federal investment, supply chain jams and labor shortages still hinder tribal broadband access

Savannah Maher Apr 6, 2023
Heard on:
To boost broadband access, tribal nations must compete with states that are also flush with federal funds to purchase the same supplies. trumzz/Getty Images

In 2020, 18% of people living on tribal lands had no way to sign up for broadband internet service, according to the American Indian Policy Institute. That’s compared to 4% in the rest of the country.

The pandemic put a spotlight on that gap, and the federal government made a big down payment toward closing it: $3 billion in the bipartisan infrastructure law for increasing connectivity in Native communities, plus earlier pandemic relief funds that some tribes are investing in broadband projects.

But with supply chain jams affecting the materials needed to carry out these projects, skilled labor in short supply and lots of competition to secure both, putting all that money to work has been tough.

It’s been noisy recently with construction at the senior housing complex in Pawhuska, the Osage Nation capital.

The payoff for all this racket? The elders who live in the site’s 30 stone-sided duplexes will have some of the fastest internet in Osage County, Oklahoma. But there’s a lot of work to do to get there.

Charla Lockman was waiting for an excavator to scoop away rocks and dirt so she and other technicians could lay down fiber-optic cables.

“What we’re doing is digging the main line for the fiber to veer into,” she said.

Once they connect these homes, they’ll move on to other Osage neighborhoods. “And after we connect the Native households, we’re gonna go into the non-Natives so that we can communicate from Ponca City to Bartlesville, all the way south to the north end of the county,” Lockman said.

The plan is to build a 200-mile fiber network and a couple of wireless towers across this vast rural county, home to 45,000 people. That’s pretty ambitious for the Osage Nation’s brand-new broadband department, called Wahzhazhe Connect — especially because getting your hands on fiber-optic cable these days is like trying to track down a package of toilet paper in March 2020.

“Gives you a little bit of anxiety, not knowing when these materials are going to show up and if they’ll show up on time,” said Kelbie Witham, a project manager with Wahzhazhe Connect.

Supply chain issues — combined with a sudden surge in demand — have complicated things, Witham added.

She pointed to giant spools of orange tubing lying around the job site. “Ugh. So, conduit — this conduit is what protects the fiber in the ground. So the lead times on those were anywhere [from] 90 to 120 days, even a year on some of the vendors that we were checking,” she said.

This team has been working on a deadline. They have two years to spend more than $50 million in federal grants on this project.

“If we’re not able to meet those timelines, I mean, that could be the difference in us losing our project or losing our funding,” Witham said.

It’s a lot of pressure, said James Trumbly, who heads Wahzhazhe Connect. Because the outside attention and resources directed to tribes’ connectivity woes won’t last forever.

“I don’t think there will ever be this type of investment, especially in my lifetime,” he said. “I’m 68, but I don’t even think in your lifetime.”

“Don’t let a good emergency go to waste, right?” said Matthew Rantanen, broadband adviser with the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association. “I don’t know that we would have gotten the foundational dollars had COVID not happened.”

But it shouldn’t have taken a crisis for the feds to notice, he said. “Tribes have always been without, right? Tribal people know they’ve gotta drive to town and go to McDonald’s or Starbucks or whatever your flavor of choice is to get free Wi-Fi.”

Better late than never, he said, when it comes to federal funding. But he added that it’s frustrating to wait so long only to face novel supply chain constraints, plus competition with states, which are also flush with federal broadband money and trying to buy the same stuff.

“We saw delays in product availability during the pandemic of over a year, to the point where products phased out of their lifetime before they were delivered. That’s how weird it got,” Rantanen said.

Once tribes clear that hurdle, they still have to find enough labor to carry out these projects on a deadline.

“You know the game Hungry Hungry Hippos?” Rantanen asked. “And all the marbles? And all the hippos try to eat the marbles?” That’s what it’s like trying to hire a broadband project manager or technician right now, he said.

And rural tribes, like Osage Nation, are at a major disadvantage, per James Trumbly with Wahzhazhe Connect.

“It’s gonna be very difficult to entice somebody to move from a Dallas to a Pawhuska, you know,” he said. “I mean it, it’s virtually impossible.”

So, they started a training program with the local technical college, which they hope will create the workforce they need to build and maintain a fiber network.

“People that are already here, we can get them trained, we can get them the skill sets,” Trumbly said.

People like Charla Lockman, who’s connecting elders’ homes to fiber. She’s an Osage citizen with a background in information technology. Osage Nation just paid her to take that fiber-optic installation training, and she thinks she’s found a new career.

“I really enjoy this work,” Lockman said. “This is an opportunity for me to go further in my previous education, and there’s a whole big world out there of opportunities.”

This might be a silver lining to the chaos: Lockman and other successful trainees can count on years of steady, well-paying work — without leaving Osage Nation.

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