A $4.1 million grant from the Federal Communications Commission has allowed the Northern Arapaho-owned company Wind River Internet to begin a broadband expansion project on the reservation. During a visit this week, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai had the opportunity to see the project's progress firsthand.
Pai spent Tuesday morning meeting with Northern Arapaho tribal leaders and touring neighborhoods that have benefited from the expansion. During a visit to the Mill Creek housing cluster in Ethete, Pai spoke about the challenges of staying viable as a small internet provider in a rural place.
"[Wind River Internet] is doing incredible work, because they've got to work against the odds," Pai said. "Obviously with sparser populations, with geographic and demographic challenges, it's hard to build a business case. And so that's where the FCC comes in."
Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that just over half of Native people living on reservations have access to high-speed internet. Executive Manager of Wind River Internet Patrick Lawson estimates that roughly one third of homes on the Wind River Reservation are connected.
Lawson said that increased internet speed and access has created opportunities for residents of the Mill Creek cluster, and in parts of Arapahoe and Fort Washakie where the company recently installed broadband infrastructure.
"We're basically talking about getting the reservation up to speed so that the citizens and people that live out here aren't left behind," Lawson said. "There's a lot of areas on the reservation that have little to no internet, or internet that really isn't good enough to keep with the demands of today's needs for streaming video, real time audio, being able to do homework."
Over the next ten years, Lawson hopes the FCC-funded expansion will allow Wind River Internet to serve 850 more homes on the Wind River Reservation.
Closing the "digital divide" between rural and urban American is one of the FCC's main priorities, according to Chairman Pai. He said that his visit to Wind River illustrated the value of that goal.
"To see how FCC funding is helping connect folks on this rural reservation is incredible," Pai said. "And to hear how consumers are benefiting from it, how kids are able to do homework at home, how business women and men can work from home is just a great illustration of the power of the internet."
During his time in Wyoming, Pai also toured a ranch in Glenrock, where high speed internet access has improved productivity, and met with Gov. Mark Gordon to discuss 5G connectivity in rural parts of the state.
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