Special to the Philanthropy Journal
By Mark Buell
At the inaugural Indigenous Connectivity Summit, Matt Rantanen found himself spending the entire lunch hour not eating but explaining how to deploy a wireless network to serve a community.
The 2017 gathering in Santa Fe, New Mexico, was one of the firsts of its kind. The Internet Society’s two-day event brought together a broad range of people, from Indigenous leaders to community members to technology experts and Internet service providers. They were all focused on a common goal: improving and expanding Internet access for Indigenous communities in North America.
Rantanen, who is the director of technology for the Southern California Tribal Chairman’s Association, has worked to further Internet access for Indigenous communities for nearly twenty years. For most of that time, he says, there was no centralized place for those working to increase Indigenous connectivity to come together, learn from one another or share their experiences. The Indigenous Connectivity Summit changed that.
“The first year was like, this is great to sit down and talk about broadband,” he tells me. “Everyone can talk about what not to do, we can talk about all these new things that are coming up, funding opportunities—it was just a great gathering.”
Founded in 1992, the Internet Society is an organization that believes the Internet is for everyone. It works alongside its chapters and members around the world to promote the open development, evolution and use of the Internet, and connecting the world is one of its main priorities. That’s because access to fast, reliable and affordable Internet is a necessity. Without it, people are cut off from opportunities for economic development, education, employment, entertainment, socializing, or even accessing medical care.
While many assume most of the developed world enjoys high-speed connections at reasonably affordable prices, there remains a profound connectivity gap, even in the richest countries, like Canada and the United States. That digital divide is particularly pronounced in Indigenous communities.
According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), 19 million Americans—six percent of the population—still don’t have access to fixed broadband service. Most of those are in rural areas, where a full quarter of the population lack the vital service. In tribal areas it’s nearly a third of people, although the US Government Accountability Office believes the digital divide is worse. Similarly in Canada, about two million people don’t have access to quality, high-speed Internet, mainly those living in rural and northern communities, regions that include much of the country’s Indigenous population.
The Internet Society is working to change that.
Following on the success of the 2017 Indigenous Connectivity Summit in New Mexico, the Internet Society held the second summit in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, high in Canada’s Arctic. “It was in the middle of nowhere and a lot of people that came from somewhere got to go look at nowhere and say, ‘Whoa, this is crazy,’ but realize that the problem is the same,” says Rantanen, who is Cree, Finnish and Norwegian. “It doesn’t matter if you’re next to San Diego or you’re 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, [Indigenous communities] still don’t have connectivity.”
In both Canada and the United States, rural areas face similar challenges getting connected. Areas of low population density lack the number of potential users needed to lure large telecommunications companies to invest in expensive infrastructure and funding opportunities often exclude Indigenous communities. The problem is even more distinct in northern Canada and Alaska, where small communities are spread across a vast and inhospitable landscape, often without road access. Even where Internet access is available in the north, it is often prohibitively expensive—think hundreds of dollars per month—and extremely slow.
Enter community networks. Put simply, a community network is communications infrastructure that is built, managed and used by local communities. These networks provide a sustainable solution to underserved areas, designed to meet the unique needs of the people who use them. Not only do they bring Internet access, but they also provide a means to build local skills and capacity, and promote economic development, cultural revitalization, and self-determination. Community networks provide the Internet for and by the people who need them.
Community network developers and those thinking of starting one have found inspiration, support and expertise through the Indigenous Connectivity Summits. By gathering policy makers, Internet service providers, researchers, and community members to join the conversation, the forums provide a unique space to share ideas on the path to better connectivity in North America’s Indigenous communities. And, perhaps most importantly, they are community-led—including Indigenous voices in the decisions and solutions that shape the Internet is a critical part of closing the connectivity gap. The reach and impact of the discussions that occur during the summits extends far beyond the event.
“It’s just a great amount of sharing that goes on,” says Rantanen. “It opens your eyes to what is being done and what’s being thought about. You’re more than happy to share those solutions that you’ve accomplished, but you’re also gathering up solutions for your future, too.”
The forums have led to other projects and initiatives, including plans to form a new Indigenous connectivity chapter. Internet Society chapters are independent local and regional groups that run programs and activities devoted to furthering the cause of Internet for everyone, including informing policy and educating the public. They also provide unique perspectives on emerging issues. Once launched, the Indigenous chapter will provide an important focal point for those working on Indigenous connectivity and further the ability of the Internet Society to understand and promote sustainable solutions for the communities it serves.
Moving forward, the Internet Society is supporting community networks and other projects in Canada and the United States that have spun out of the Indigenous Connectivity Summits, and organizing a third to take place in Hawaii in November 2019. The Internet Society is strongly committed to working with Indigenous and other unique communities to find sustainable solutions that best serve their needs. And it is committed to advocating for these communities to be consulted and heard by policy-makers, governing bodies, telecommunications companies and other major players. Without their voices, we won’t succeed in ensuring the Internet is for all.
To learn more about the 2019 Indigenous Connectivity Summit, please visit internetsociety.org/events/indigenous-connectivity-summit/
 FCC, Eight Broadband Progress Report, December 2018 https://www.fcc.gov/reports-research/reports/broadband-progress-reports/eighth-broadband-progress-report
Mark Buell is Internet Society‘s Regional Bureau Director for North America. In this role, Mark oversees the Internet Society’s engagement activities in Canada and the United States.