COVID-19 presents additional challenges — but you can help
At 280blue we work with some incredible entrepreneurs, innovators and industry luminaries. And, while Coronavirus has forced us all to adjust to the new normal, we’ve been fortunate enough to add employees and continue our agency’s growth throughout this crisis. Knowing that others are not in the same position, we wanted to use our collective skill sets in public relations and marketing to get behind a great cause. I’m happy to announce that we’re working pro bono with MuralNet, a non-profit organization founded by software-defined networking pioneer Martin Casado.
MuralNet started as a passion project by Martin. He grew up in the Four Corners region of Arizona and saw first-hand how tribal communities were being left behind, especially when it came to education. In many of these tribal nations, schools — and internet access — can be few and far between, meaning students are either forced to leave their homes and live near schools to get a proper secondary (high school level) education or get left behind. Even for primary (K-8) education, teachers are often disadvantaged, as they are unable to get certifications due to lack of access to the internet. Students, meanwhile, have to drive several hours to a McDonald’s to get WiFi access to complete online assignments. During the pandemic, the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) estimated from a survey of 142 out of 174 schools, that up to 95 percent of their students do not have access to residential internet services.
Connecting tribal communities
Through the efforts of MuralNet, its partners, volunteers and donations, the organization has been able to connect many tribal communities to broadband internet and train tribal members to manage their own networks. This has enabled students in many tribal communities to complete their secondary educations without leaving home. But with more than 500 tribal communities across the United States, including Hawaii and Alaska, there’s much more work to be done.
But for MuralNet, it’s not just a matter of putting up cell towers, connecting networks and training tribal communities to self-manage the equipment. Last year MuralNet CEO Mariel Triggs also worked tirelessly on Capitol Hill with lawmakers and the FCC to create a path forward for tribal communities to own their own broadband spectrum. While some communities have access to EBS spectrum, many tribal communities don’t have access to the airwaves over their own land. Meanwhile, the FCC auctions off this spectrum to the highest bidder — typically to service providers that want to use it to enhance their 5G capabilities, but who won’t build out to communities that have no business case. MuralNet was successful in arguing for a priority window that gives tribal communities time to apply for the spectrum.
Coronavirus brings new challenges
Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the effort to get more tribal communities connected has slowed tremendously. While the current crisis has brought more media attention to the digital divide , the focus has largely been on urban communities, as students adjust to virtual classrooms. However, rural tribal areas are, and have been, the hardest hit by a lack of internet access. For instance, only 65 percent of American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians living on Tribal lands and Hawaiian Home Lands have access to fixed broadband services, and only 69 percent of households on Tribal lands have telephone services.
The impact of this digital divide in rural tribal areas is substantial, as Internet access is vital for not only education, but for supporting other essential community functions, including local tribal communications, emergency services and tele-health and the development of economic opportunities. It is imperative, for the long-term wellbeing and success of these communities, that they gain access to reliable broadband connectivity as quickly as possible.
A call to action: volunteer and donation support
This is not the first time MuralNet has been challenged, but during COVID-19, they need your help more than ever. As businesses are focusing on how to stay afloat, the number of volunteers and donations have slowed. Additionally, as the tribal priority window is fast closing, tribal communities need support to get permanent legislation passed to connect tribal areas and close the digital divide.
If you want to help support MuralNet, there’s a particular need for volunteers and donations, especially in the wake of COVID-19. For more information, to volunteer or to donate, please reach out to Mariel Triggs: firstname.lastname@example.org.