For Native American Heritage Month, NDIA is featuring digital inclusion work on Tribal lands. Special thanks to the Fond du Lac Band for sharing their connectivity story! Image: Courtesy of Fond du Lac
By Rita (Aspinwall) Karppinen, Fond du Lac Reservation communications director, and Yvette Scorse, NDIA communications director
In November 2019, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa community, located in northern Minnesota, had just connected to fiber broadband for the first time. A few months later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
The launch of the Band’s broadband access could not have been timed better. During the pandemic, residents’ perspectives on connectivity quickly moved from a luxury to a necessity.
Prior to the installation of fiber, residents used dial up or hotspots and didn’t have the speeds that would be necessary for multiple household members to be online for school, work, and other activities. All of a sudden, people really needed fast, reliable household internet.
“Everything we do in our culture carries the responsibility of impacting seven future generations, which is why we are always finding ways to embrace technological innovations that align with our ecological sustainability, economic prosperity and cultural preservation objectives,” said Fond du Lac Tribal Chairman Kevin Dupuis.
Of course, fiber installation didn’t come overnight. In 2005, they began grappling with the question of how to serve the entire reservation with broadband internet. The low population density and spread of the land posed barriers, along with the cost.
Between 2012 to 2016, the Fond du Lac Band partnered with the Blandin Broadband Communities Program, and this helped lay the digital inclusion foundation; providing students with tablets to learn coding at an app camp, offering basic computer use and internet safety classes, and distributing devices through PCs for People.
By 2016, they had started building funding for fiber, thanks to USDA grants, and had a plan to launch their own ETC (eligible telecommunications company) – Aaniin.
“From fiber optic telecommunications to installing superchargers for electric vehicles, we know that continuous investments in our own community pave the way for our continued success as a sovereign nation,” Dupuis said.
With high-speed access, the Fond du Lac reservation was also able to offer online programming that residents could actively participate in. They hosted online pandemic updates with Tribal leadership and medical professionals and even launched a SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) educational program in cooking. Attendance at these online programs grew quickly, from about 15 in person to 50 online. Because they established their own ETC, they are also able to incorporate offers for affordability, including the Emergency Broadband Benefit.