Federal grants no longer enough to fully connect Native communities to high-speed internet
Roadblocks like supply chains, bureaucracy slowing down the setup of broadband
Santa Clara Pueblo Lt. Gov. James Naranjo points at a map on May 24, 2023 detailing broadband access on the Pueblo. Alan Davidson, assistant secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information, leans with his hands on the table as he listens. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)
SANTA CLARA PUEBLO — While the sun beamed down on old adobe houses outside on Wednesday, a group of tribal and federal officials gathered inside to analyze a mostly red map detailing a lack of good internet access across Santa Clara Pueblo.
Work is in progress to change that.
Last year, Santa Clara Pueblo was one of what’s now over 140 tribal entities awarded a grant by the federal government to set up broadband — reliable, high-speed internet. The Pueblo got just over $9 million to install fiber internet in 600 households, a stark change to come for the communities that have historically gone without good internet access.
Alan Davidson, federal assistant secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information, visited Santa Clara Pueblo on Wednesday to check in on how the broadband project is going. Tribal officials guided him through the lengthy process to get everyone connected.
Daniel Tafoya is the director of special projects and safety management at Santa Clara Pueblo. He said the federal $9 million grant is likely not enough to get the fiber job done anymore.
Tafoya said officials estimated that number would be enough money before the pandemic hit, but now inflation has raised costs.
“Those numbers are completely out the door at this point,” he said.
Tafoya said the Pueblo doesn’t know how much the project will add up to until a fiber broadband design is completed. He said officials are still in the contracting phase right now and will hopefully move into the process to get federal environmental approval soon.
The federal secretary didn’t promise more funds but said other federal agencies have grant programs that could help. Davidson said his agency wants to work with Santa Clara Pueblo to ensure the entire community gets solutions.
“It’s going to take us years to be able to connect everybody, but we know how important it is,” Davidson said. “And we are here to say we’re your partners in continuing this.”
There have been a few issues already in the fiber design process. Tafoya explained there’s a lot of private land checkerboarded throughout Santa Clara Pueblo, which complicates setting up broadband lines.
“It’s very hard for us to get from point A to point B and sometimes,” Tafoya said.
He said Santa Clara is also trying to fend off companies that could come in to set up internet services for Pueblo members. He said the Pueblo wants to do this on its own.
“We want to provide to our own community and provide this service to our tribal members,” he said.
Davidson questioned if the Pueblo has enough workers to set this up without outside help. He said he’s heard a lot of other communities struggling to get enough people to build the networks.
Tafoya said that could be an issue, especially since the need for broadband came up suddenly when the pandemic hit. This work requires a specific technical skill set that not many people have, he added
“I think we’re all facing some worker shortages, somewhere, somehow,” he said.
He said the Pueblo is trying to take advantage of trainings happening elsewhere, so members can learn how to do broadband work at places like community colleges and bring that knowledge back to Santa Clara.
James Naranjo is the lieutenant governor of Santa Clara Pueblo. He said the Pueblo has to compete with higher wages on offer in surrounding wealthier communities like Santa Fe and Los Alamos.
“We’re a self-governing tribe, so we’re trying to manage our own way,” he said.
If the Pueblo can get workers in the broadband field, Davidson said, there will be a high demand soon as other tribal communities and states, including New Mexico, get more federal money to set up broadband. The federal government is supposed to announce more grants this summer.
“You’re at the leading edge of this in many ways,” he said.
More roadblocks extend beyond the northern New Mexico Pueblo. Tafoya said the federal reporting requirements officials have to adhere to for things like project progress and financial updates have been strenuous and time-consuming.
“We get that some of these things do need to be reported, but it does take up quite a bit of time,” he said.
Tafoya said the importance of setting up this broadband extends beyond just internet services. For example, he said, Pueblo officials want to set up emergency communication equipment needed by first responders.
“We want to make sure that we maximize our capabilities with the money that you all provide to us,” he said.
Davidson said he’s heard other grant recipients also mention a desire to set up public safety communications, and he’s glad Santa Clara is being smart about leveraging the grant funds to get multiple things done.
Similar issues down the road
SAN ILDEFONSO PUEBLO — Just a dozen miles away, under the shade of a large tree while ants crawled at its base, Davidson also talked with officials from San Ildefonso Pueblo, another grant recipient.
San Ildefonso Pueblo got nearly $5 million in federal funds to set up high-speed internet for 255 tribal households.
John Gonzales is the tribal administrator. He pointed at a building not far from where he stood with Davidson under the shade of the big tree and explained it’s called pueblo-style architecture, often older buildings made from adobe.
Gonzales said the goal is to get good internet set up in these older households.
“It’s going to be very valuable,” he said. “There’s no doubt about that.”
Lawrence Pena, director for planning and economic development, said the biggest obstacle for San Ildefonso now is how much costs have risen, similar to what Santa Clara is facing.
“You have personnel costs that are double, triple,” he said. “Engineering costs which are probably triple and quadruple at this point.”
Supply chain issues could slow things down, he added. Gonzales said getting the right resources and technical assistance has been difficult, and contractors are scarce.
Pena said Santa Clara is in the process of getting federal environmental clearances and hopes to get on-the-ground work started in late September, faster than when San Ildefonso could get things moving.
While this planning stage is still going on, Davidson said it’s a good opportunity to prepare by training tribal members in the field of broadband.
“The best thing would be if these networks are all being built by the communities that they serve,” he said.
Gonzales said maybe the Pueblo could tap into the highly educated workforce nearby at Los Alamos, and Davidson said it’s probably easier than that.
“You don’t need a Ph.D. to be a fiber slicer or to help build these networks,” Davidson said.
The San Ildefonso officials shared some of the same concerns that Santa Clara had, though, that wealthier neighboring communities could steal workers with better pay than the Pueblo can afford to provide. Gonzales said that’s an issue.
“But hopefully we’ll get our own people trained,” he said.
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