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Saturday, September 28 • 10:10am - 10:45am
The Hardest Cases of Broadband Policy: Native Telecommunications, Captive States, and Policy Entrainment

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Providing telecommunications service and promoting adoption on Native American lands remains one of the hardest problems in telecommunications policy (e.g., FCC 2011). Yet a notable success story for the diffusion of broadband Internet has been the Tribal Digital Village (TDV), a solar wireless Internet distribution network that serves 19 federally-recognized Native American Reservations in Southern California. On the most impoverished of these reservations, residents live without phones, paved roads, or constant electrical power and the effective poverty rate is 100%. Participating reservations are often located in extremely mountainous, remote areas. On a few of these, residents now have TDV broadband available and use it every day, a remarkable feat given the obstacles involved (Srinivasan 2006, 2007; Sawhney & Suri, 2008; McGrath 2011; Sandvig 2012).

This paper will examine TDV as a broadband policy case study in order to understand the nuances of subsidized broadband in situ. Founded in 2000, TDV is a governmental ISP that has grown from one location to operate in a rectangle about 175 miles by 75 miles. It spans the area from the US-Mexico border into Riverside County with over 90 miles of wireless backbone (point-to-point) links operating on solar power at a minimum of 45 Mbit/sec. It serves about 2,000 users. It is inconceivable that a high-speed Internet project designed exclusively to serve people living in poverty in the mountains would be possible without subsidies, and the TDV has been heavily subsidized. (It received private philanthropy, Universal Service Fund support, National Science Foundation funding, cross-subsidy from Casino profits, BTOP funding, and more.) Service and home computers were initially free to all users, but after a decade TDV transitioned to a paid monthly service fee as is common among small commercial ISPs.

This paper will present material from a qualitative ethnography of infrastructure (after Star 1999) about the TDV. This study could also be conceptualized as longitudinal, embedded, single-case design selected for atypicality (Yin 2003). The findings to be presented come from five TDV site visits and four off-site interviews from 2004-2013 ranging from 1-7 days each. These produced over 380 audio and video recordings and over 1,000 photographs of equipment, users, engineers, and officials. In addition, researchers analyzed documents, budgets, grant proposals, and news coverage about the TDV. Few other recent research projects have a similar longitudinal perspective on native broadband and no researcher studying the TDV has acquired access to a comparable corpus of documents.

Prior work (op. cit.) identified the success of TDV as resulting from massive subsidy, proximity to a major research university (UCSD), and a complex of difficult-to-reproduce circumstances. This paper will examine the TDV?s transition away from free service and its effort to introduce other sources of revenue beyond subsidy--essentially a major model shift from collectivism to capitalism. This analysis allows for reflection on rural telecommunications, broadband policy, the digital divide, spectrum allocation, and a number of other fundamental, overarching telecommunications topics. However, elaborating theories of ?captive states? (Black, 1988) this study also uses the TDV to demonstrate the important particularity of each native telecommunications project. It argues that small sovereign states like The Ewiiaapaayp Band of Kumeyaay Indians or The Santa Ysabel Band of Diegueño Indians participate in a policy process termed ?entrainment? (where in geology, a small particle is moved by a large fluid flow yet remains distinct from it). The TDV and other native policy projects are drawn along in the stream of US policy, yet an overriding policy goal in Native telecommunications is often to remain distinctive (e.g., Michaels, 1994). As this goal is often implicit, the consequences are often unexpected and counter-intuitive.


Heather Hudson

U of Alaska Anchorage


Saturday September 28, 2013 10:10am - 10:45am PDT
GMUSL Room 225

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