Yurok Connected: Why a North Coast Tribe Used its Stimulus Funding to Invest Big on Communications Infrastructure – Lost Coast Outpost

The Yurok Connect project will bring high speed internet access to the tribe’s reservation, allowing children to attend distance learning courses and adults to work from home through the COVID-19 pandemic. Photos: Yurok Tribe.

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When shelter in
place hit in March, Rose Sylvia couldn’t just stay home. Sure, she
had a job that allowed her to telecommute and her son’s school had
shifted to distance learning. But Sylvia’s home, tucked near the
end of State Route 169 in one of the most rural areas of a rural
region, didn’t have internet or cellular service.

So instead of
staying home isolated last spring to protect herself and others from
COVID-19, Sylvia would regularly load her 9-year-old into the car and
drive about 45 minutes down State Route 169, past Pecwan and Martins
Ferry as the two-lane road followed the Klamath River, to the Yurok
Tribal Office in Weitchpec. With the office mostly empty as the tribe
ordered everyone who could to work from home, Sylvia and her son
would set up a work space where he could do his distance learning and
she could plug in as the tribe’s human resources director.

Yurok Connect broadband technician Daniel Ryles ascends one of the tribe’s towers.

The same dance would
have started anew this fall with Hoopa Elementary School having opted
to begin the year with distance learning, but it didn’t, thanks to
a massive investment from the Yurok Tribe to bring high-speed
internet service to Sylvia and hundreds of households that had been
living far off the telecommunications grid. The project —
undertaken with $2.1 million in federal CARES Act relief funding
allocated by the Yurok Tribal Council — will also enhance emergency
communications on the reservation and boost internet speeds for
houses already receiving service through Yurok Connect, a tribe-owned
wireless service provider.

With more than 6,300
members, the Yurok Tribe is one of California’s largest but its
roughly 85-mile reservation straddles a 40-mile stretch of the
Klamath River. In addition to being sparsely populated, the
reservation stretches over some of the most remote, forested lands in
the state, which has caused private sector telecommunications
companies to pass on bringing services to the area. That’s why in
2013 the tribe launched Yurok Connect, which draws a wireless,
over-water connection from Crescent City to Requa, from which the
signal is sent through a six-tower network to bring internet services
to the area. But the signal is weak — akin to dial-up, according to
Jessica Engle, director of the tribe’s information technology
department — and dependent on line-of-sight from tower to tower,
meaning it has become spotty as trees have grown taller over the past
seven years.

Engle said the tribe
had been looking for years at ways to make Yurok Connect’s service
both more reliable and faster but the project is dauntingly
expensive, requiring physically extending the existing towers to make
them taller and adding some new ones, as well as equipment upgrades
on the towers and users’ homes.

“We’d been
working toward this goal for a while but when we get grants, they’re
not normally big enough to take on such a large project,” Engle
said.

But Engle and others
knew the project was vital — a notion that was quickly reinforced
when shelter-in-place became a reality back in March, instantly
forcing tribal members to telecommute to work, distance learn for
school and use video conferencing for medical appointments. Much of
that was simply infeasible for large swaths of the tribe’s
membership.

“There are some areas on the reservation that don’t have any
communications whatsoever —students couldn’t do distance learning
and had to drive 30-plus minutes to get service,” Engle said,
adding that some tribal elders were also living without any reliable
communication connection to the outside world.

Walter Hoffman runs Yurok Connect on the Klamath side of the Yurok Reservation.

When the tribe got
word it would be receiving funding through the federal stimulus bill,
Engle said she and her department immediately pitched the tribal
council to use it to make a significant investment in Yurok Connect.
COVID-19, they said, had made getting tribal members connected to
high-speed internet service imperative. The council agreed.

“The broadband
project will considerably enhance emergency communications on the
reservation for decades to come,” Tribal Chair Joseph James said in
a press release shortly after the council allocated the funding. “It
will also create a wide range of additional benefits for tribal
citizens, ranging from new economic opportunities to improved
healthcare options. This is a game changer for the Yurok Tribe.”

In addition to
giving tribal members enhanced economic, education and healthcare
opportunities, getting connected may also be a good way to keep them
safe. The tribe has taken an aggressive approach to protecting
members from COVID-19, and that’s proven good policy as data
indicates Native people are at far higher risk of both contracting
the virus and suffering critical health impacts than their white
counterparts.

A new report from
the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that COVID cases
have been far more prevalent among Native populations, which have
seen 594 confirmed cases per 100,000 people versus just 169 cases per
100,000 people for white people. Locally, Native people have
accounted for about 7 percent of cases in Humboldt County while
making up an estimated 6.4 percent of the population, according to
the U.S. Census.

But Native residents
in Humboldt County also are more likely to have the underlying health
conditions that greatly increase the risk of critical COVID-19
outcomes.

Yurok Connect broadband technician Daniel Ryles poses next to one of the tribe’s six broadband towers, which will soon help bring internet service to the entire Yurok Reservation.

The latest county
health assessment in 2018 highlights dramatic health disparities
locally, noting that “Native Americans in Humboldt County will die
an average of 12 years sooner than Caucasians.” The report states
that these disparities likely stem from “federal and local policies
that governed the quality of life for Native Americans over the past
400 years” and were initially directed at their extermination
through genocide, “outlawing of traditional and cultural practices,
and removal from their homelands.”

The report states
diabetes-related death rates are two times higher for Native
residents than the local population as a whole, with rates of
cardiovascular disease more than doubled. And according to the
Centers for Disease Control, COVID-19 patients with such underlying
conditions are six times more likely to be hospitalized and 12 times
more likely to die of the disease.

The Yurok Tribe
realized early on protecting its members from the pandemic would take
a multi-faceted approach.

“It was
immediately apparent with the reservation closure and the pandemic
that you want people to stay home,” Engle said, adding she didn’t
expect anything less than the council’s full support of efforts to
allow tribal members to safely shelter in place while working,
learning and staying connected.

Engle said the goal
is to have the project complete by the end of the year, noting that
in addition to constructing two new towers and raising the existing
six, radios and access points need to be replaced with
“carrier-grade” equipment to accommodate the higher speeds.

For Sylvia, who
lives at the end of State Route 169 “in the boonies” near Wauteck
Village, having broadband at home has been “huge.” In addition to
allowing her to work and her son to join video conferences with his
class without leaving the safety of their home, she said it’s just
been nice to “kind of stay connected to the world.” She said
she’s been watching the news, while her son has been playing online
video games with friends and video conferencing with his cousins.

“You can see his
little disposition change by having interactions with kids rather
than just his parents,” she said. “You just don’t know how
happy I am to have this service and to be able to do what I need to
do without stressing out about leaving the house.”

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Author: HOCAdmin