Shinnecock gets an $8.2 million grant to build a new broadband network

The Shinnecock Indian Nation has received nearly $8.2 million in federal funding to build a high-speed Internet network across its Southampton Reservation and surrounding properties, tribal leaders said Friday.

The plan, to be implemented by 2024, will provide high-speed connections to more than 500 connection points on nearby reservations and tribal members’ homes and government buildings for new fiber-optic broadband and wireless Internet connections.

The tribe has been working on the complex plan to secure funding for more than a year and represents the largest single competitive grant received by the tribe.

Of the 536 connection points included in the plan, 301 will be homes of disadvantaged tribal members, while another 60 will be homes near land, government buildings and “landmark institutions,” including the monumental billboard on Sunrise Highway. The infrastructure will help create or enhance programs such as distance learning and emergency communication, healthcare, and commerce.

“It will greatly enhance the lives and experiences of the Shinnecock Indian Nation,” said Randy King, vice chairman of the Shinnecock Board of Trustees.

King noted that in his decades in office the tribe has gradually increased its technical capabilities, but the new franchise will provide a quantum leap. “We are now in an age where to stay ahead in a global environment, these tools and resources are essential to be the same as everyone else,” he said.

The funding is coming through a tribal broadband connectivity program included in the Biden administration’s bipartisan infrastructure bill, with local backing from Senate Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer.

“Reliable, high-speed Internet access is not a luxury; it is a necessary necessity to create good-paying jobs, to communicate, to access health care, to shop, and to learn,” Schumer said in a statement.

In all, $224 million has been awarded as part of the program to 18 tribal entities nationwide, and projects funded by the awards “will directly connect 21,468 underserved Native American families who previously lacked high-speed Internet connectivity, as well as anchor companies and institutions,” the administration said.

Matt Ballard, a tribal technical consultant, said it will also bring a level of training and jobs that will help tribal members compete in a competitive workplace.

“There’s a shortage of programs and opportunities for kids who look like us,” he said. “We usually get the jobs that aren’t the high-paying tech jobs. This is another way for us to get our children into positions where they could do well and get high-paying jobs they can be proud of.

Tribal Council member and secretary Kelly Dennis and Tela Troge, director of tribal health and community services, did much of the legwork to secure the grant, a process that took more than a year and provided a detailed road map for federal regulators to understand the extent of the tribe’s need and plan to roll out broadband up to the Westwoods tribe’s property in Hampton Bays. Both women are tribal lawyers.

Part of the plan includes the construction of two wireless communication towers that will provide high-speed service not only to tribal members not reached by fiber optic line, but will help service the surrounding community. Many areas of the East End have large gaps in internet and cell service, Troge said.

“Our plan includes two cell towers to greatly improve cell connectivity to our members and also the surrounding community, benefiting the region, not just the Shinnecock Nation,” Troge said.

Dennis said the new telecommunications infrastructure will provide a huge boost to connectivity for the tribe’s annual pow wow, where many tribal vendors use internet connections for payments and other business connections.