Havasupai Work To Bridge Digital Divide In Grand Canyon

By Laurel Morales
Published: Monday, September 16, 2019 - 5:05am
Updated: Wednesday, September 18, 2019 - 9:16am

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Mariel Triggs
Laurel Morales/KJZZ
MuralNet CEO Mariel Triggs installs a box outside one Havasupai family’s home, while tribal members Travis Hamidreek and Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss check the signal.

Nestled among turquoise blue waterfalls and cottonwood trees the tiny Havasupai reservation is only accessible by foot, by mule or by helicopter. It's a five-minute flight from the rim of the Grand Canyon to Supai Village, where 450 tribal members live in small homes made of panel siding and materials that can be easily hauled to the canyon floor.

It's no wonder internet access has been a challenge. But recently the Havasupai have had some help from the Oakland-based nonprofit MuralNet.

"Look at that," MuralNet CEO Mariel Triggs says. "We got bars! Dang!"

Supai Village
Laurel Morales/KJZZ
About 450 Havasupai live at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

MuralNet's Mariel Triggs trains the Havasupai how to install a network box outside a home. Triggs — with the help of Flagstaff-based Niles Radio — built what's called a microwave hop from towers at the rim that beam a signal down to Supai Village.

"And we were able to put up a network in just a few hours for less than the cost of a Toyota Corolla frankly," Triggs says.

The total cost to provide broadband to every building in Supai would be closer to $127,000. But Triggs says the geography wasn't the issue. It was policy holding up the process. The Federal Communications Commission finally granted the tribe a permanent license last spring.

Now the Havasupai want to increase the signal but they've run into another hurdle. GovNET, a telecommunications company, says it would like access to the broadband and has opposed the tribe's use of its frequencies. So now the FCC is dealing with concerns over competition.

"We have the funds," Triggs says. "We have the money. We could do it. We could put materials that are needed in the towers and connect everything but we have to wait for all this policy stuff again to sort out. I'm scared it could be years. It just kills me because I feel like policy is actually causing the digital divide right now rather than helping to fix it."

Currently only seven Havasupai families can connect, including the Balderramas. Sally Balderrama's son Evan is 9 but tests at the kindergarten level. A therapist flies down into the Canyon twice a month to work with Evan and other kids with special needs.

Laurel Morales/KJZZ
Sally Balderrama says having internet access allows her special needs son to receive the attention he deserves via Skype.

"It's not enough time," Balderrama says. "It's not enough. I wish they can stay at least for three to four days."

Thanks to the new internet connection, the therapist can work with Evan three times a week via Skype. And Balderrama says she has noticed a big difference in her son.

"And the internet is good," Balderrama says. "It is but we have times when it pauses and it spins and that's kinda frustrating."

The internet is helping students young and old in Supai Village. At the Head Start Center, Director Carlos Powell tries to get 20 toddlers to take a nap.

"Remember, boys and girls, you don't have to go to sleep, but you have to rest your brain because you were thinking so hard today," Powell tells them.

He and his teachers now have access to the internet so they can keep up with the federal certification requirements.

"The only way we can accomplish that is through broadband," Powell says. "Having to send my teacher out for a semester would be way way expensive for this tribe and that teacher to do."

Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss
Laurel Morales/KJZZ
Havasupai Councilwoman Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss, the youngest person on council at 33, has written letters and made trips to Washington to try to bridge the digital divide in Indian Country.

Councilwoman Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss is trying to get the tribe more reliable high-speed internet for a whole host of other reasons — so teens can take high school courses online instead of being sent away to boarding schools, so they can train community members to do the jobs the tribe out sources now, so they can have better emergency communication during one of their many flash floods and for better health care.

"We have different generations of telemedicine equipment that have just been sitting around collecting dust because it's been unable to be established," Watahomigie-Corliss says. "Broadband speeds, high speed internet, those things are specific."

Meanwhile, the FCC estimates at least a third of people living on tribal lands don't have access to high-speed internet.

So the agency is giving tribes first dibs on applying for available broadband spectrum — ahead of commercial companies — at the beginning of 2020.

But the problem is twofold: The window to apply is small. And the FCC would require the tribes to build their infrastructure — the towers and antennas — in half the time required of major telecom companies.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify the cost of the project and the position of GovNET.

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