When COVID-19 forced the closure of the Santa Fe Indian School's campus in March, Kimball Sekaquaptewa, the school's chief technology director, and her IT team had barely five hours to prepare about 725 students for remote learning. They thought it might last a few weeks.
But as the reality of schooling from home set in, Sekaquaptewa spent the spring and summer figuring out how to get internet connectivity to isolated areas of New Mexico, where many connections on tribal lands are made on prepaid phones, if at all.
Most people who live on tribal lands in New Mexico do not have consistent access to high-speed broadband—about 80% of them, according to the Federal Communications Commission's 2016 Broadband Progress Report.
The school is surveying each individual's internet situation. Another reality: There is no one-size-fits-all approach.
"If we need to provide them connectivity, what's going to work best?" Sekaquaptewa says. "Because just saying, 'We usually use Verizon so we are going to buy 725 hotspots' isn't going to help in the communities where there aren't Verizon towers. You have to reverse engineer the connectivity issue based on the location and network availability of each student."
During the last school year, SFIS students without internet were typing up research papers on their phones because the school-issued Chromebooks were not as useful without an internet connection. Others wrote out their papers by hand and submitted cellphone photos of them to their teachers.
For 12 hours a day on most days, Sekaquaptewa works from her computer at her kitchen table, troubleshooting with students and her team and working with state and federal agecies. For example, she deployed 101 LTE routers to create tribal public Wi-Fi locations for students who do not have in-home internet connections.
Despite the extreme difficulties in connecting the eastern part of the Navajo Nation and the pueblos and tribes SFIS serves, Sekaquaptewa says the pandemic forcing schools into remote learning could have some positive outcomes.
"Because of the attention to broadband and the critical need for residential internet access on tribal lands, then… if there is a silver lining, it's to jumpstart those conversations where we can start building emergency networks in the pueblos," she says.
SFR caught up with Sekaquaptewa last week to talk about the effort. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
SFR: How has your work changed since COVID-19?
Kimball Sekaquaptewa: We're trying to figure out a way for [the students] to go to school and…we have to solve for connectivity, devices and professional development for our staff to teach the technology-rich pedagogy.
Before COVID, I was still building networks and I was excited about bringing in a supercomputer onto campus and connecting with regional networks and really working on the application side of things as far as student academic experiences that could open doors to new education opportunities or career opportunities. And then, once COVID hit, it's really about trying to solve the digital divide in a few months by multiple strategies.
Is there anything else you and your team are doing to prepare students and teachers for internet-based learning?
We're completing a survey right now and we're trying to get aggregate numbers to know 'That's true, 30% of our students can connect.' We're actually using that information to figure out where the gaps are and what works best in their area…We're giving them all new Chromebooks, but these Chromebooks have a SIM bay in there so they're unlocked essentially. So that if they are pre-paid families, they can just pop that prepaid SIM card into the Chromebook.
From your years of work on this, what is still needed for the tribes and pueblos in New Mexico? Should internet connectivity still be a problem here?
I don't think that the lack of internet connectivity is really a uniquely pueblo or uniquely New Mexico problem, unfortunately. But I do think that…maybe even since 2008, [tribes] really started to understand the issue and start putting in…specifically fiber optic infrastructure.
I think compared to some other tribes in the country, we're more versed in how to deploy our own infrastructure, which is a blessing now, because there is CARES money that's coming down to address COVID.
And even the work that we got to before COVID, we were starting to do these residential [internet] plans. COVID kind of jump-started some of those conversations again. When I initially priced out some hot spots for 725 students, by the time we bought the modem, the equipment and then the internet access for a year, I think it was just shy of $350,000.
But if a tribe had been working on their fiber optic backbone and they brought it to at least a library or the governor's office, putting up some wireless equipment and blasting that to the houses, it could be hundreds of thousands of dollars. We could use the CARES money. If we're talking between $100,000 to $500,000 for that tribally-owned wireless network that's permanent, it's just a no-brainer that that's a better solution than buying a year of hotspots which essentially disappear after a year unless somebody picks up a contract.
But like I said, many of our community members are prepaid [Internet] community members. So sometimes it's difficult to have a credit check or even have a credit card to put on file. So that wasn't going to be a clean transition, even if it was worth that really expensive Band-Aid to solve this immediate COVID problem.
Certainly we want to work with the tribes to build our wireless networks to provide the technical assistance to help them get residential internet, and that's the goal.