Reagan Smith joins Pawnee Nation College at the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Association award ceremony in July 2022. (Courtesy photo)

By: Heide Brandes

Tribal entities in Oklahoma received millions of dollars in funding from the Biden administration for internet access on tribal land, but still only 67% of tribal lands in the lower 48 states have broadband access. That compares to 98% of urban Americans with broadband.

One Oklahoma company understands the challenges for the tribal entities. Reagan Smith has been working on the issue as a full-service state, federal and tribal project management consultant since 2015.

Gains are being made to improve broadband access for tribal entities. Federal funding provided $1 billion to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration for the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program. Another $2 billion from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is earmarked for the TBCP.

Part of that mission involves connectivity. In June, in addition to helping five tribes apply for the grants, Reagan Smith joined with Pawnee Nation College for a grant from the NTIA to further the expansion of broadband access. Teaming up with Land Scout, Reagan Smith was hired for grant writing, program development and project management.

The NTIA funding will help Pawnee Nation College and ARISE Veterans’ Foundation to develop and extend programming to reach more than 15 tribal nations in the Midwest.

“We worked with Pawnee College to help them develop some programs on broadband and how they could actually utilize their college programs to help people get into the broadband career sector,” Reagan Smith Inc. CEO Monica Smith Griffin said.

“The funding is not just for broadband infrastructure, but also career training. It’s also for outreach to the tribes and (producing) content on the internet that’s tribally focused.”

Griffin said a large segment of the population across Oklahoma and the United States do not have access or familiarity with the Internet. Teaching these groups how to safely use the internet is a big focus for Reagan Smith.

“Like with Pawnee College, we are doing internet security classes and teaching people how to be safe online, how to not get scammed online, how to set up banking, online shopping and what to be watchful of,” Griffin said.

“Not everybody grew up having access to the internet on a day-to-day basis, so that’s a big issue, especially for Pawnee Nation College and the communities they’re serving.”

The $7.7 million in nationwide grants will help Pawnee Nation College create a student technology grant and computer lab on its campus. Serving six tribes, Pawnee Nation expects to extend their services to 16 tribes with this grant, which was awarded in June.

“The NTIA grant to Pawnee Nation College is highly beneficial for students within the community of Pawnee, Oklahoma,” said Michael Burgess, president and NTIA project director for Pawnee Nation College. “It allows PNC students to connect with other sources of education and information. Additionally, it will give access for further educational goals of working individuals.”

Specifically, at Pawnee Nation College, Reagan Smith offered grant writing, project management, tribal college program development and consultation among program partners. For the Illinois extension, Reagan Smith also will perform ground penetrating surveys, environmental assessments, and drone work to assess the current infrastructure and land.

Working with tribes to utilize the broadband funding is another aspect of the training, including how broadband can be used for economic development, education and medical needs, she said. Regan Smith also works with traditional tribal towns, tribal colleges and even Pacific Island nations in efforts to expand internet access. She said that many Oklahoma rural communities – not just tribal communities – will benefit from expanded broadband capabilities.

“There’s another round of NTIA grants coming out, and I hope tribes know about that, especially if they missed out on this first round of funding,” said Griffin.