October 09, 2023

Keeping Communities Connected: Addressing the Digital Divide on Tribal Lands

Rachel Salinas
Rachel Salinas President of ICAE, the Inter-Tribal Council of AT&T Employees

As President of the Inter-Tribal Council of AT&T Employees and a member of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas, I take immense pride in my Native American heritage. However, the challenge of being among the least digitally connected in the country is one I'm determined to see us overcome. As part of our commitment to help narrow the digital divide, AT&T is focused on connecting more Tribal lands to high-speed internet and essential digital devices.

Reflecting on the fact that over a third of Tribal lands lack broadband connectivity, and more than 18% of indigenous people have no internet access at all, the urgency for enhanced connectivity is undeniable. In today's digital landscape, being disconnected from the internet equates to a persistent state of isolation. And the repercussions of this disconnection on individuals and communities are far-reaching and profound. As the internet has evolved into a crucial medium for obtaining information, resources, and opportunities, those who remain detached are met with a myriad of obstacles. Beyond mere convenience, connectivity serves as a gateway to possibilities and life-altering prospects, with the potential to transform the course of a person's life.

For instance, the recent collaboration between AT&T and the Cherokee Nation to build a cell site in Kenwood, Oklahoma, has brought peace of mind to Brenda Hair, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation reservation. She no longer has to drive over 10 miles for cell service and can now easily contact her loved ones and safety officials at the click of a button, like every other citizen. The tower also significantly improves safety by providing dedicated coverage and capacity to Cherokee Nation first responders on FirstNet®, America's public safety network built with AT&T. Beyond safety, Cherokee citizens like Brenda can now access education virtually, explore new job opportunities and stay up to date on the latest news and trends from the comfort of her home.

In addition to increasing coverage on Tribal lands by more than 40% from 2020-2022 and having more than 70+ Tribal nations using FirstNet, we’ve opened AT&T Connected Learning Centers® on:

AT&T Connected Learning Centers provide access to free high-speed internet, computers and online learning and digital literacy resources for those who face connectivity barriers. Brenda also touched on the impact the Connected Learning Center will have on the Cherokee community, expressing that, “For many families, we depend on the laptops students get from school to handle anything online. Now, when students must return those to school, there is an alternative we can resort to for all our online needs and stay connected year-round.”

In September, I was fortunate enough to be present at the inauguration of the Pinoleville Pomo Nation Connected Learning Center. Witnessing the sheer joy and excitement on the community members' faces, as they realized the boundless opportunities afforded by the state-of-the-art Dell computers and high-speed internet, was a powerful and humbling experience. It was in that very moment that I grasped the essence of AT&T's mission to connect people and felt an immense sense of pride in being a part of an organization that makes such a meaningful impact on people's lives.

We’re also working to connect more Tribal families through the distribution of free devices and the expansion of internet access. We’ve handed out more than 500 laptops to members of five California tribes, and we’ve begun deployment of AT&T Fiber with the San Pasqual Tribe. Our fiber will serve more than 500 customer locations in Valley Center, California on the San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians’ Tribal land and will help expand economic opportunities that include Valley View Casino and other Tribal business ventures.

We often say at AT&T, and it holds truer than ever, that connecting changes everything. Bridging the digital divide on Tribal lands is a vital step towards ensuring that Native American communities have equal access to opportunities and critical resources, leveling the playing field for all.

As the leader of AT&T's Inter-Tribal employee group, I am deeply proud of our organization's unwavering commitment to Tribal lands. Together, we are weaving a brighter, more connected future for all, where the power of the internet brings transformative change, hope, and opportunity to every corner of this great nation.

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