KELLER, Ferry County — Amber Kuehne, a 32-year-old single mom taking online classes at Spokane Community College, drove her Ford Escape to the community center in this small Colville Reservation town. Unlike most homes on the reservation, including Kuehne’s, the community center has an internet connection, with Wi-Fi access in the parking lot.
Kuehne, determined to show her daughter life was bigger than subsidized housing and dead-end jobs, had an exam to take on this spring night. Her deadline was 11:59 p.m. She propped up her laptop in her car and put the mouse on the middle console.
The connection was lagging. So she moved to the back of the community center, hoping the signal would be stronger. It wasn’t. Kuehne had finished about eight problems — out of more than 50 — when she was disconnected. There was no time left to try to get back online and finish the test.
“I ended up getting a really crap grade on it and I was super upset,” said Kuehne, who works in the community center as director of the Boys & Girls Club based there.
With shaky internet, piled on top of managing school with a full-time job, Kuehne ended up dropping out of the administrative office management program she hoped would put her on a path to becoming her own boss.
Kuehne is rooted on the reservation, a mountainous, staggeringly beautiful expanse of 1.4 million acres in Eastern Washington that stretches from the Columbia River almost to the Canadian border. It is home to 12 bands of the reservation’s Confederated Tribes, and about 7,000 of the 9,500 enrolled members.
But living here — and in so many tribal and rural parts of the state, even on the fringes of cities including Seattle, Spokane and Leavenworth — means it’s often difficult or impossible to connect to the online world. When the pandemic largely turned the online world into the world for many urbanites, hundreds of thousands of people in Washington were shut out.
Kids couldn’t attend Zoom classes or do assignments online. Seniors and others needing medical care couldn’t switch to telehealth appointments. The unemployed struggled to fill out online job applications, and the employed looked for places to log on. Pandemic tedium was unbroken by streaming TV and movies, and forget about online grocery and restaurant delivery orders.
While people are coming back to schools and jobs and doctors’ offices, something in society has shifted, and many are left behind. After a long conversation recently, Ernie Rasmussen revealed he was sitting in his car to catch a Wi-Fi signal at a marina on the Spokane Indian Reservation, where he lives. Recent health problems had kept him from making the hour drive to a Spokane office, so, he said: “This is my eight-hour day.”
The irony: Rasmussen is the digital equity manager in the state’s Broadband Office.
The federal government has spent billions trying to solve the digital divide — a project many say is as big and necessary as it once was to get electricity into every home — and is on the verge of spending more than ever. Congress last month approved $65 billion for expanding high-speed internet, or broadband, in its massive infrastructure bill.
Of that, $2 billion is reserved for tribal lands — where only 65% of residents had broadband access as of 2019, according to a U.S. Department of Interior report — on top of $1 billion allocated earlier this year.
Separately, the state Broadband Office is about to start giving out grants using money already allocated by the Legislature.
Many are seizing the moment.
“This is the greatest opportunity we’re probably going to get in a very long time,” Tiffany Circle, in the Colville Reservation’s IT department, said last summer as the pandemic was prompting lawmakers to funnel money to broadband, noting it took a tragedy for that to happen. The IT department was using pandemic relief money it already got for broadband projects and was about to submit an ambitious grant proposal to build on them.
It’s crucial to make sure all communities are aware of opportunities and ready to submit proposals, said Russ Elliott, director of the state Broadband Office from its inception in 2019 until late September, when he left to head a telecommunications company in California. “We can’t just go in and say ‘we need money.'”
Whether all the cash coming down the pike will be put to good use is another matter.
Multitude of challenges
Ragged cliffs surround the Grand Coulee Dam School District, a legacy of volcanic eruptions and floods from the Ice Age, giving another distinctive feature to an area boasting the nation’s largest hydropower producer. The Colville Reservation encompasses the district’s Lake Roosevelt school campus, and many of the 700 students are Native American. Some live on the reservation, while others live in nearby towns or on large stretches of wheat fields, pastures and off-the-grid homesteads.
Many internet service providers have steered clear of the reservation and other remote areas in the district, where the terrain makes it expensive to lay fiber-optic cable and the scattered population offers little potential return on that investment.
What service there is often relies on old copper-wire technology or satellites that involve delay while data travels to them and back to the home. Many people complain such service — like satellite-based HughesNet — can be painfully slow and not up to tasks like streaming.
Hughes Network Systems Senior Vice President Mark Wymer, who said he uses the satellite service at his rural Virginia home without problems, attributed some of the complaints to people using the entry-level, $59.99-a-month plan. That means slower service after a certain amount of data used. Higher-level plans run up to $149.99 a month.
Any internet plan can be prohibitively expensive around here. Recent census data put the median household income on Colville tribal lands at $43,000.
When the pandemic forced schools to close in March 2020, the district embarked on an Odyssey-like quest to enable students to learn remotely.
First, it ordered hundreds of Chromebooks for kids to use at home. But schools everywhere were doing the same, creating a “fiasco” of supply problems, recalled Adam Foged, who works in IT for the district. “We were probably into September/October before we were able to get a device in everybody’s hands.”
Next problem: “They’re great but we can’t hook up to them,” Superintendent Paul Turner said. More than 100 students who got the Chromebooks didn’t have internet, so couldn’t use them. The district then got families mobile Wi-Fi hot spots through a program run by the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Problem solved? Not quite. The hot spots worked through T-Mobile cell service, not available in parts of the district. Not until at least February 2021 could the district get new hot spots using different providers.
Still, due to patchy cell service, the hot spots didn’t always work well. “Half the time, even if I was able to get into my Zoom classes, it would kick me out,” said Layla Flett, talking with other students in the lunchroom of Lake Roosevelt Jr./Sr. High School.
A sophomore who lives in the Colville Reservation town of Nespelem, Flett said she almost failed her English class, in part because she couldn’t access videos the teacher posted that contained assignments. At one point, Flett said, she was about three months behind, trying to catch up while staying on top of current work.
Sophomore Carly Neddo has a mom with a good internet connection, in Electric City, and a dad without. He and his wife live on a grassland plateau far from anything, in a house without electricity that depends on solar, generator and wind power.
Because the satellite internet service they have is barely functional, Neddo said, she would miss Zoom classes when at her dad’s place, and wait until she was at her mom’s to upload class-required videos, like herself speaking Spanish. Meanwhile, Neddo’s stepmom, Kim Campbell, an elementary school teacher, had to drive to school to upload videos for her students.
Neddo, an advanced student who at 15 is already taking her school’s highest-level math class, managed. Others had a harder time, many of them already struggling when the pandemic began, according to Principal Sara Kennedy. Back in person, she said, “We’re noticing they really need a lot of help.”
Laura Morago, manager of the Colville Reservation’s youth development program, supporting kids in school, said she heard of similar problems when talking to superintendents across the eight districts that have students from the reservation.
Some of her staff were laid off for a time because of the pandemic, and when she brought them back in October 2020, “part of their thing was just reaching out to students and, like, finding out where they were. Some of these kids hadn’t even logged into a Zoom meeting or talked to their teacher or completed an assignment.”
As COVID-19 numbers climbed again during the fall, educators throughout surrounding counties worried about students cut off from online learning while quarantining, and the possibility of everyone having to go remote again.
In Keller, a windy half-hour drive northeast of Coulee Dam through forest and along the San Poil River, Lody Kent feared for another group of people on the reservation: seniors. Kent runs the town’s senior meal site, and while most tribal government buildings are wired, the meal site is not.
Many of the people who come for the daily lunch or have it delivered — at least one relying on supplemental oxygen — have little means of communication. Not only do they lack reliable internet, but it’s so hard to get a cell signal in town that residents go to a nearby patch of ground known as “the telephone booth,” where service mysteriously works. Landline calls aren’t an option either when fires or flooding cause outages.
“We live in the middle of nowhere, so when a fire happens it’s really scary,” said Kent, 66, taking a break from making fry bread and beef stew one day in September.
Fire season had just ended and the memory was still fresh of fast-moving blazes that led to an evacuation order in Nespelem, about 25 miles away, and the closure of the Keller Ferry across the Columbia River, one of the main routes out of town. Fire officials, with limited options for getting the word out, often had to go door to door, according to Kathy Moses, public information officer for a tribal fire center.
Until his son recently came home because of an injury, Marshel Sumerlin, 81, lived alone in a house surrounded by trees and few neighbors. “Dad, we need to be able to call you once in a while,” he said his three daughters told him last year.
He had no landline, unreliable satellite internet, and an old cellphone that was useless, he said. So his daughters chipped in to help buy him a new phone that cost nearly $1,000 — only to find that terrible cell reception means he can hardly use it.
Sumerlin, a veteran and retired trucker, had hoped to use his phone not only to talk to his children but to make online medical appointments, like one he had to schedule with the VA in Spokane for kidney problems. He was so frustrated on this day that he planned to drive 100 miles to Spokane to make the appointment in person.
“After I retired, I just kind of lost contact with the whole world,” said another octogenarian, Walt Arnold, once a building inspector for the tribal housing authority. For months after COVID hit, the reservation was closed and even his four children didn’t visit, he said. A son had taken a lawn mower away to be repaired and while waiting to get it back, Arnold’s grass grew higher than the windows, as if to reinforce his insularity.
Arnold yearns for the window on the world he believes the internet would provide.
Hazel Perkins, a 74-year-old retired nurse and president of the advisory board for the Keller senior meal site, has a more specific purpose in mind: to keep track of funding for the four such sites on the reservation and to mobilize in the face of any planned cuts.
Low standards, long timelines
Damon Day, the Colville Reservation’s chief information officer and a member of the federal Native Nations Communications Task Force, said he has watched with frustration as companies like CenturyLink get federal funding to bring broadband to underserved areas.
Such companies, given long timelines to complete their work, didn’t always fulfill their obligations — yet their promise to do so kept the tribes from getting broadband funding of their own, he said. “And the federal government was just slapping them on the wrist.”
Local officials around the state say they have been similarly maddened. “There’s not been a lot of accountability to the federal investment in past years,” said Elliott, the former Broadband Office director.
The Federal Communications Commission, in an email, said it recovers a percentage of funding from defaulting companies according to what they fail to do.
CenturyLink said in a statement it had “made significant investments to bring broadband access to every corner of our service territory where it is economically feasible.”
After receiving hundreds of millions of dollars through the Connect America Fund, CenturyLink told the FCC in January it may have missed 2020 deployment deadlines in Washington and 22 other states. The company has until the end of 2021 to come into compliance, and says it has now “completed all our CAF builds” in Washington.
Yet, even that is not necessarily reassuring. The money committed CenturyLink to putting in internet service with a download speed of at least 10 megabits per second — far below the FCC’s minimum broadband standard of 25 Mbps downloads, not to mention the agency’s 100 Mbps threshold for being “underserved” or the state’s goal of 150 Mbps by 2028.
This fits a pattern: Low federal standards and the long timelines have yielded networks that were outdated even as they were built.
The feds have stumbled in another big way. They have allocated money according to FCC maps of where access to broadband does and doesn’t exist — maps widely considered, as state Commerce Director Lisa Brown put it in a letter to the state Legislature, “woefully misleading and inaccurate.”
The maps have relied on unverified reports from internet companies about whether they provide — or could provide — service in any given census block. If the answer is yes to just one home in a census block, that block is considered served.
The FCC has acknowledged flaws in this system. “In a particular listed block, the provider may have subscribers or it may not,” the agency said in 2017, according to a Congressional Research Service report in May. “At the same time, the provider may be able to take on additional subscribers or it may not.”
This year, the FCC began work on a new mapping system the agency says will get input from local governments and consumers. Whether the agency gets it right is key. The feds will use the new maps to dole out infrastructure bill money — above a $100 million minimum given to every state — according to need.
Looking at current FCC maps of Washington, one might think, what need? They show the entire state having access to broadband.
To get a true picture, the Broadband Office has been encouraging people to take an internet speed test, and is feeding the results to another federal mapping project. The office’s own map, through color-coded dots, shows the precise speed at every location a test was taken.
Clicking through the dots paints a portrait of disparity, with speeds ranging from less than 1 Mbps to more than 600. Of the roughly 44,000 people who have taken the state test so far, 46% had no service or a download speed of less than 10 Mbps, less than half of the FCC’s antiquated minimum standard.
Some of the worst service, or absence of service at all, is found in surprising places.
So close, and yet …
If the Colville Reservation is one of the most remote places in Washington, then Spokane, the state’s second-largest city, is one of the least.
That makes Caitlin Lake all the more frustrated that her family — living on a couple acres only a six-minute drive from downtown Spokane — can’t get broadband.
“It’s not like I’m living on some mountaintop in Idaho,” Lake said.
Lake got an additional cellphone line for an iPad, a so-so workaround. When her 4-year-old son’s preschool went partially remote, he could attend virtual circle time for about a minute before being cut off.
“So he would be trying to say hello to his friends or wave or say hi to his teacher … and no one could hear him and no one could see him,” Lake recalled. “And that is like inexplicable to a child at his age, especially one who has social and emotional delays,” as her son does.
She’d spend the whole day reassuring the crying child that his friends weren’t ignoring him and his teacher doesn’t dislike him.
Kathryn Sharpe also lives in a not-exactly-remote area, just north of the Snohomish County city of Arlington. Her internet is often slow and unreliable, affecting virtually every member of her family over the past couple of years.
Her oldest daughter, a high school senior when the pandemic began, gave up on Zoom classes and got a restaurant job, though she was still able to graduate. Sharpe’s partner, laid off from a printing job at the beginning of the pandemic, sometimes filled out job applications on his phone — hard to manage because of the little screen, Sharpe said.
And Sharpe in early November could be found in the parking lot of the Arlington library, using its Wi-Fi to attend a Zoom meeting for a part-time job with a parent-leadership training course. Every now and then, the lights and revving engine of a car leaving the lot would cause her eye to wander. At least winter hadn’t yet set in and she wasn’t using up gas to keep the car running for heat.
At 6 p.m., the library closed, staffers filed out and Sharpe was left alone in the quiet of the darkened lot.
“Hold on. We’re in the process of some projects there,” said Jessica Epley, vice president of regulatory and external affairs for Ziply Fiber, a telephone company that provides internet service. She was referring to a 30-mile stretch heading northeast from Arlington. “Over the next 18 months, things are going to change.”
In 2020, Ziply was founded after buying the assets of Frontier Communications for four states including Washington, where it is based. Since then, according to Epley and marking and communications vice-president Ryan Luckin, the company has been partnering with the state and counties to bring broadband to small and rural communities. Ziply is positioned to do so, they say, because it already has infrastructure in many of those communities, like telephone poles, that can be used to run digital wires.
With so much government funding in the offing, projects and proposals are popping up all over. Some people have already seen improvement.
In areas hard to reach with fiber, Starlink, a division of Elon Musk’s company SpaceX, has been rolling out a broadband service using satellites closer to Earth than the traditional variety, allowing data to move back and forth more quickly. Amazon in November announced plans for a similar service.
Starlink faced criticism last year when an expose by Free Press, a public interest nonprofit, revealed that the billionaire-owned company’s plan for nearly $900 million in federal funding included well-served areas like downtown Seattle.
And, Rasmussen of the Broadband Office pointed out, Starlink is not participating in the federal Emergency Broadband Benefit program, which subsidizes internet service for low-income people and those living on tribal lands. (SpaceX did not return requests for comment.)
Still, Faith Zacherle, a nonprofit leader who lives in Keller, said the Starlink service she got this fall has made an amazing difference. Unlike with her old satellite service, HughesNet, whose dish sat in her yard like a relic, she could now use Zoom for work, even while one of her kids was online doing something else.
Colville tribal leaders aren’t waiting on corporate America, though. When it comes to providing broadband, “nobody else is going to do it,” said Day, the chief information officer. “We learned that the hard way.”
So Colville leaders resolved to build their own system. Over the past year, using COVID relief funds and a radio frequency license the FCC granted to more than 150 tribes nationwide, Colville officials have been putting up towers for wireless broadband and handing out devices to receive signals at home.
They’ve made the service free, and have prioritized families with schoolkids, aiming to have most people online by 2026, according to Circle in the IT department.
At the same time, the tribes set about finishing a project they’ve been working on for years, putting in fiber along Highway 155 between Nespelem and Omak. What’s more, Day said, “At some point, the tribes are going to stand up an internet service provider company.”
The tribes were going to “swing for the fences,” he said, requesting tens of millions more dollars in federal funding. As he was explaining that, talking by cellphone while driving on a remote road, the call dropped.
They are making progress, Day managed to convey before that, but there is a lot of work yet to do.
This article was produced as part of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2021 National Fellowship.