TribalNet: Expanding Internet Accessibility and Participation on Native American Reservations

Carleen Maitland

Sponsoring Agency
National Science Foundation


Tribal communities represent the final frontiers of Internet access in the U.S., with fast (broadband) Internet access available to fewer than 10% of Native Americans on tribal reservation lands. The lack of broadband access is caused by a collection of challenges, including remote terrain, inadequate funding, and complex telecommunication policies. Yet Native Americans need reliable avenues for participation and contribution to Internet content to strengthen their communities. This project investigates technologies that will increase Internet availability on reservation lands. Further, it will develop new methodologies of disseminating Internet content to reservation residents, prioritizing content by relevance during periods of limited connectivity. Ethnographic methods and interviews of Native Americans residing on the reservations will be incorporated to ensure usability and utility of the proposed solutions. Through the trial of the solutions within Southern California tribal communities, the work has the potential to reach over 2,700 homes and 60 community anchor institutions. Within the three participating institutions, the PIs will include in courses results from the research that demonstrate the positive humanitarian impact of computer science in order to increase the appeal of computer science to female and minority groups.

The goal of the research is to make critical inroads to addressing the lack of Internet access on tribal reservations, to increase the number of Native American reservation residents who are able to engage with, create, and disseminate Internet and on-line social network content. This project will achieve this goal through four related elements: (1) develop an architecture suitable for a multi-network setting comprised of cellular, wireless ISP and whitespace networks, where coverage, cost and network speed varies; (2) develop a tribal content distribution network, consisting of computation and storage at cellular, wireless ISP and white space towers across the reservation, that delivers content to and receives content from end users; (3) conduct a limited empirical study of Internet use and organizational network technology use capacity within the TDV community using ethnographic methods to inform the content prioritization and distribution mechanisms. Interviews will also be conducted and engaged in prototyping activities as needed to ensure that the system interfaces support use and administration by members of the community; (4) collect and analyze multiple years worth of traffic from the TDV network to develop models of content relevance and consumption to prioritize content distribution in the network.

Research Area
Social and Organizational Informatics