Broadband access is now seen as an integral part of community development.1 The U.S. Census Bureau has been collecting information on households’ internet access since 2013, but the data had been insufficient to estimate high-speed, or broadband,2 internet access for lightly populated counties and many American Indian reservations. That changed with the recent release of the American Community Survey’s five-year (2013–2017) rolling average data for small areas. These new figures show that broadband access rates differ significantly among American Indian reservations but are, on average, low relative to national norms. Tribes and tribal organizations are working to reduce this impediment to economic development on reservations.
The variation in broadband access levels among reservations is illustrated in Figure 1, which maps reservations in the contiguous 48-states.3 Broadband access is categorized by the same five levels of access the Census Bureau has used for U.S counties.4 The lowest category, in light yellow, shows reservations where fewer than 55 percent of households have broadband access. This access rate is well below the national average of 78 percent as well as below the average rate in completely rural counties of 65 percent,5 and is evident in several geographically large reservations in the Southwest, Northern Plains, and Intermountain West. However, other large reservations in the same areas have rates closer to national and rural county norms. It is also evident from Figure 1 that a few reservations match or exceed the national average.
Broadband access levels for many geographically small reservations are hard to discern in Figure 1 but can be analyzed statistically. Across 262 federally recognized reservations, in the typical (median) reservation, 61 percent of households have broadband access. This percentage is significantly lower than the percentage of households with broadband access in the typical U.S county which is 69 percent. In the typical county that overlaps at least one reservation, 70 percent of households have broadband access.
The Census Bureau has shown that counties’ rates of broadband access are positively correlated with income.6 We have found the correlation between income and broadband access for reservations is very similar as to counties. This can be seen from the box and whisker plot in Figure 2 by the similar degree of rise in the median of each box. This implies that the lower average levels of broadband access in reservations is likely attributable to lower median incomes on average, rather than a fundamentally different relationship between income and broadband access than in counties.
However, the relatively low rates of broadband access in reservation communities may also add to their economic development challenges. Enhanced Internet access may not boost all types of reservation economic activity. For example, if reservation residents increasingly purchase consumer goods online from remote suppliers, employment at local retail outlets may fall. However, the net effects of enhanced access are generally considered positive for economic vitality, including through channels such as increased productivity at local businesses, increased sales to consumers outside the reservation, improved life-style and government services that attract residents, improved medical and educational services, and more.7 For these types of reasons, tribes and tribal organizations are taking steps to enhance Indian Country’s broadband access.8
Broadband access is a potential addition to the upcoming updates to the CICD’s Reservation Profiles economic development resource.
Figure 1: Percentage of Reservation Households with Broadband Access
Figure 2: Percentage of Households with Broadband Access, by Location and Median Household Income Level