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Watchdog: High-Speed Internet Lacking on SD Tribal Lands

The Government Accountability Office is suggesting actions to expand high-speed Internet coverage to tribal and rural areas. (iStockphoto)
The Government Accountability Office is suggesting actions to expand high-speed Internet coverage to tribal and rural areas. (iStockphoto)
February 9, 2016

PIERRE, S.D. - The lack of access to high-speed Internet remains a big problem on tribal lands in South Dakota and across the country. A new report from the federal Government Accountability Office highlights serious barriers to setting up fast and reliable Internet connections in those areas.

The agency interviewed 21 tribes, including the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of North and South Dakota. South Dakota Senator Troy Heinert (D-Mission)is a Rosebud Sioux Tribe member. He says he's backing an idea to increase Internet access for the federal Native American healthcare program, under a Medicaid expansion in the state.

"In order to do that, to use the telemedicine and the e-emergency, they need a system upgrade, which would require that high-speed capability," says Heinert.

The report found high-speed Internet is available to only 37 percent of homes in tribal areas, compared with 92 percent in most urban areas. Recommendations include a push for better data collection and more coordination from the government agencies in charge of expanding Internet access to rural and tribal lands.

The report also notes the government provides what are called "E-rate" subsidies for Internet Service Providers, companies such as AT&T and Verizon, to set up connections in these areas. Mark Goldstein, physical infrastructure issues director for the GAO, suggests the Federal Communications Commission could streamline that process, both for the ISPs and tribal leaders.

"Because right now, it's a pretty high administrative burden for a lot of tribes," says Goldstein. "They're unable to obtain monies that otherwise would probably be available to them, that would help them better institute these kinds of programs."

Goldstein says other challenges in expanding Internet access range from physical issues such as rough and rural terrain, to social issues, including high poverty rates among Native Americans.

Brandon Campbell, Public News Service - SD