FOr tribal colleges across the country, where the pandemic has magnified inequalities in internet access. Their campuses are often located on remote tribal lands, the vast majority in areas with few broadband providers, sometimes slow speeds and spotty coverage.

Tribal colleges are overwhelmingly located in areas with few broadband providers.

Note: Data includes number of fixed residential broadband providers with broadband speeds of at least 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream. Provider data from December 2020.

“You can drive from nearby towns, and once you book, the internet and cell phone signal drops,” said Cheryl Crazy Bull, president of the American Indian University Foundation and member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation. “Students will be in class and their Wi-Fi access will drop.”

To make matters worse, many students are limited by outdated equipment. “We have students trying to use their flip phones for class,” Crazy Bull said. Stories like this pop up all over the Indian territory.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, Jacob McArthur was working as the new information technology coordinator at White Earth Tribal and Community College in Manor Gate, Minnesota, after finishing his studies. Internet service is limited, and few places even have 4G cell phone service.

“I was looking forward to my first morning at my new job, and when I was getting ready for work, I got a text from the principal saying, ‘Don’t come in. The campus is closed due to COVID-19,'” he said. A second message followed, saying he needed to help teachers and students get online as soon as possible.

One of the biggest challenges is getting enough Wi-Fi hotspots for students so they can access online instruction. It seems like everyone is vying for hotspots, and online providers are limiting the amount anyone can buy.

“I drove to every Walmart within a 150-mile radius and bought their stock,” MacArthur said. “I was wearing a different winter hat and luckily, a mask, so I was basically in disguise.” He then drove from one end of the reservation to the other, leaving the hotspot.

With students now back on campus, he wrote in an email: “Because of limited bandwidth, we are challenged to have multiple classes on Zoom using high-definition webcams at the same time, with faculty and staff on campus and at the same time. Students are using bandwidth at the same time, which can cause our video streams to drop in quality, and it’s hard for our students at home to see what’s being presented.” But here’s the good news. He was able to convince the college board to spend an additional $300 a month to upgrade the college’s Internet service from 100 Mbps to 500 Mbps, enough to support the hybrid courses they hoped to transition to.