Local Leaders Making a Difference | Featuring Kimball Sekaquaptewa

Kimball Sekaquaptewa working.

The belief that broadband is for everyone is one of the core tenets that fuels Next Century Cities’ work. It became widely apparent as communities were forced to move online. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have highlighted local leaders that are stepping up to the challenges of getting residents online. 

As we close out 2021, we would like to put a spotlight on Kimball Sekaquaptewa, Chief Technology Officer at the Santa Fe Indian School, an off-reservation boarding school that serves 700 students from the 19 Pueblos, the Apache, and Navajo tribes of New Mexico.

Kimball Sekaquaptewa is from the Hopi Tribe and lives in Cochiti Pueblo, New Mexico. She is the proud mother of three and has been married for almost 20 years. Among her most notable accomplishments is her work to connect families schoolwide with digital opportunities. Sekaquaptewa’s work at the Sante Fe Indian School also showcases the far-reaching impact of community advocacy and importance bringing broadband within reach for every household. 

Next Century Cities: Could you give us a little bit of background on the communities that you serve and what the broadband landscape looks like in those communities?

Kimball Sekaquaptewa: My name is Kimball Sekaquaptewa. I’m the CTO of the Santa Fe Indian School, which was originally established in 1890 in Santa Fe as a federal boarding school. It has been under Tribal control since the mid-seventies after the passage of the Public Law, 93-638, the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act. 

With that authorizing legislation, the Pueblo governors were able to contract the operation of the school away from the federal government to intentionally regain control over the lives of Pueblo people by taking control over the education of the youth. We’ve always looked to our Tribal leaders for guidance. We’ve looked back into our communities and our Indigenous knowledge systems to drive the curriculum and to provide an education that meets our communities’ needs.

Scope of the Challenge | Our broadband work involves 22 rural tribal lands in New Mexico, among the least connected areas of the United States. We do have students coming from the larger, urban cities in New Mexico, such as Albuquerque or Santa Fe. They may have better choices of broadband providers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can afford those choices.

When we go out into the tribal communities for wired service, there is no cable. Oftentimes, we must rely on DSL but that is not available in many Pueblos either. We face  the classic tale of the incumbent provider’s lack of investments on our lands to bring faster cheaper offerings. There is a satellite but only a few of our families can afford it. Many WISPS are emerging, including some that are tribal, that are serving our small communities. That is very hopeful development.

E-Rate Program | Tribal governments are not exempt from the connectivity challenges. When I got involved in broadband in 2015, helping one of our Pueblos apply to the FCC E-Rate program, the entire tribal government and the public library of Cochiti Pueblos shared two T1s. They had three megabits of service for the whole Sovereign Nation. That is about a third or so of my LTE cell phone right now.

We connected six Pueblos, in two consortia, to build a 120-mile fiber optic network into Albuquerque. Starting from very humble beginnings, we proved it could be done. The networks have been in operation since 2018. We had momentum going and were already planning residential deployments but just weren’t quite fast enough for COVID.

Next Century Cities:How did COVID impact the work that you’re doing with your communities? Were priorities shifted because of COVID?

Kimball Sekaquaptewa: As of 2021, New Mexico is the 49th least-connected state for broadband and 50th in K-12 education. Indian education was already challenged in systematic ways. We abruptly closed Santa Fe Indian School due to COVID in March 2020. 

As directors we were talking about a long weekend and one student that was going to be flying out of state. We talked about how we were going to treat that student coming back to school, knowing that travel was already a high-risk enterprise. Not even two hours later, we shut the school down indefinitely.

We were fortunate to have enough Chromebooks for all the students. For the students that weren’t already assigned one, we were able to send one home. We did not know how long we were going to be away from campus and learned that the problem was way more complex than just a lack of connectivity. 

Extensive Connectivity Needs | Although connectivity was the first formidable and most glaring challenge that we needed to face. Like many schools, we did surveys and we learned things like “don’t administer a survey about connectivity using an online instrument.” So we called all our parents and found that only 11% of our students and 23% of our staff had a 25/3 Mbps broadband connection that met the FCC standard.

While the urban-based families had minimum access, our reservation-based families had different sets of complexities. Maybe they had a DSL connection, but it was slow. Maybe they had to share [an Internet connection] amongst family members, or maybe they were relying on a cell phone which the parent took to work. 

42% of our students reported using prepaid cellular plans for Internet access, their primary way of connecting pre-COVID. Or they would also go to relatives’ houses, Tribal libraries or to a McDonald’s or a Starbucks when they could get a ride into town.

In May 2020, tribes who represented 11% of the statewide population also represented over 50% of COVID cases and the mortalities in New Mexico. In response, our Tribal leadership physically closed our borders and they put up checkpoints to keep people from coming onto or leaving the Pueblos. That was for our safety. We needed it and thank them for doing it.

That decision disconnected the students and families from being able to get to those alternatives to in-home Internet access. They couldn’t go to their relative’s house because we were social distancing. The Tribal libraries closed. Their parking lot Wi-Fi was on, but social distancing in vehicles wasn’t always allowable. Parking lot Wi-Fi  and bus-wifi created other concerns, such as students trying to connect in weather extremes, summer sun in the desert or freezing temperatures in the winter.

There were times when tribal members could not go to town or maybe there were restrictions about the number of people in a vehicle. We would hear stories about a mother driving 40 miles to a town to help her first child access the Internet, taking her first student home, picking up her second child, then going back to use the Internet. The was unreasonable. 

There was also a lot of income loss, especially for self-employed people such as artists, during this time. Families had less disposable income to buy the prepaid data plans for their students. Therefore, some students did not have an internet lifeline.

Partnerships | It is impossible for a national cellular carrier to put up 19 towers within six months, but we were able to identify some workarounds. One thing we did was to call our established partners. Verizon was able to help us and provide a disaster recovery unit for a Pueblo that represented one of our largest student groups. It is located between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, maybe six miles away from a well-connected town, and right off a major interstate highway. It is a complete dead zone for all mobile carriers. The Verizon Cellular on Wheels provided the sole Internet connection through the pandemic. The tribe purchased hotspots for all the families. We all pitched in where we could and had a successful intervention.

WiFi Locations | Another major help was to set up over 100 outdoor Wi-Fi locations across the state on tribal lands. We partnered with the New Mexico Public Education Department Indian Affairs Division who purchased about a hundred Cradlepoint LTE routers with dual sim cards. Through a volunteer effort with non-profits, we worked with the ITDRC, The Information Technology Disaster Recovery Center. They’re awesome and usually respond to natural disasters by setting up Wi-Fi. They treated the pandemic as a disaster recovery situation, sending out crews and SFIS IT coordinated the deployments. We installed hundreds of them on Tribal lands. They aren’t a long-term solution but something.

Pandemic Relief Funds | About three or four months into COVID, remote learning was not fulfilling anybody’s wildest dreams. So, we did finally cave and buy LTE-enabled Chromebooks. When we first closed the campus, I was telling the carriers, “This is too expensive.” We did receive COVID relief funds but spending $400,00 on a year’s worth of data plans that we knew had spotty coverage was not a good use of funds. Moreover, it was not sustainable. About that time, multiple providers came out with educational plans that were more affordable at a fraction of the cost.

Choosing Equipment | In the end, we bought LTE-enabled Chromebooks that have the bay for the SIM card. They are more expensive, but they have a faster processor and bigger hard drive.  Buying those devices turned out to be a blessing because online connectivity is important, but latency and jitter is also important, right? So, having the higher end devices improved our remote learning. Regarding coverage, we know what cellular maps will say about who’s connected and not connected and we know the difference. In our planning, we talked to the families and since we also live in these same communities were able to match which cellular provider was best for each student. Living to the north or south of a particular hill would tell us what was best. Sadly, there were cases where none were the best.

Digital Preparedness | After connectivity and device availability, the third pillar in remote working was the skill level of the people, educators, and families to use the digital tools. This is where decades of systemic inequities surfaced. Many of our rural tribal schools lacked technology-rich teaching pedagogies.

Our Bureau of Indian Education schools in deep rural areas with only a smidge of Internet were not going to have robust one-to-one mobile programs. Their students weren’t used to learning through technology, and their teachers were not used to teaching through technology. We had to spend time on professional development with intentionality. The Verizon Foundation provided a grant to help us, not just with the teacher training, but with STEM enrichment. 

Generational Impact | Two years later, some schools are still remote. In my community, tribal orders prevent unvaccinated students from attending school. With all the learning loss through COVID, and for native students who were already at-risk, it could take a full generation to get back to pre-COVID days.

Next Century Cities: How will the passage of the Infrastructure Bill impact the families and your communities that you’re serving?

Kimball Sekaquaptewa: A lot, I hope. I am optimistic, especially with NTIA as the funds administrator. They have done an excellent job seeking tribal engagement in the grant development process and created a program that provides flexibility for tribes to articulate their levels of need as well as proposed solutions.

In New Mexico, we can build on the pre-COVID broadband efforts – not that there isn’t still a mountain of work to do. At least 11 of the 19 Pueblos have tribally-owned fiber optic middle-mile backbones. New funding could increase the middle mile tribal footprint to include all tribal lands. 

Local Solutions | During COVID-19 there was a direct correlation between the Pueblos with fiber backbones to those who, in response to lack of service offerings, stood up tribal WISPS connecting homes. Amongst the original six consortia Pueblos that I directly work with, all now provide residential internet access. Santo Domingo Pueblo created a WISP and connected all of their homes by August 2020, three months into COVID. Tribes have proven to be their best solution to the digital divide.

NTIA Grants | In the first round of the NTIA Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, there were five billion dollars in requests for one billion dollars in funding. We know that applications included feasibility and sustainability studies requests, which will result in more need and more projects. Additionally, the application window was so short that you almost needed to have engineering complete or know how to do it quickly to apply. It’s likely that more tribes would have applied if there was a little bit more time. The recent Infrastructure package includes another two billion dollars for tribal connectivity. While it is a step in the right direction, it is not going to meet all the broadband needs in Indian Country.

Next Century Cities: How can broadband advocates and legislators advance your work?

Kimball Sekaquaptewa: Broadband advocates come in different shapes and sizes with different niches from the availability of last-mile and middle-mile networks to adoption and affordability, and more recently, digital inclusion. These are different conversations involving different yet often overlapping groups. Some areas are highly technical, while others focus on people to uplift voices especially in under-resourced and underrepresented communities who know that they need Internet access but do not know what to do about it. 

It’s the human side of broadband – to use the technology to create connected communities that provide pathways for people to stay in their villages or hometowns practicing their traditions while participating the global digital economy and benefiting from increased economic security, improved health, education, and community well-being.

Coalition-Builidng | A group of broadband advocates, called the New Mexico Broadband Collective, which includes philanthropy, non-profits, and other socially-oriented organizations works to fill in some of the gaps that industry and public policy organizations may have missed. They are a safety net for the least connected to bring these communities into the broadband conversation and to not do so alone. 

The complexity of federal grant applications can deter smaller applicants. By creating a collective to help with grant writing, pre-engineering, community outreach, etc., the Broadband Collective creates a resource network to help communities navigate broadband funding and implementation to become connected. For me personally, community-building is the ultimate broadband goal.

Ask for Federal & State Officials | New Mexico has a great US Congressional Delegation with long standing broadband priorities and relationships with the tribes. We need them to be our voices in Washington, DC. But we need to help them help us. It is important for Tribes to not just share our challenges but also our successes as we become broadband providers and our own solution to the digital divide. 

For instance, in 2020, the FCC created a Tribal Priority Window that was the first time ever that Tribes had the opportunity to license the spectrum before a public auction. Unlike other natural resources such as water, we do not have sovereign control over the airwaves above us. The FCC has sliced, diced, and leased it above us for decades. For us gaining access to spectrum is an exercise of self-determination, especially now that we’re deploying networks. Over 400 tribes applied for licenses during the Tribal Priority Window and now hundreds will be standing up a WISP. We need our legislators to carry this success through congressional subcommittees to advocate for all future FCC spectrum auctions begin with a tribal priority window. 

Next Century Cities: Can the work that your community is doing serve as a model for other communities nationwide?

Kimball Sekaquaptewa: Yes. When we built the E-rate networks, we demystified the Internet. It was no longer this mystical blue orb illuminating the globe. It was about plows, bores, plastic pipes, and putting boxes in the ground. That experience educated our tribal communities showing that we could handle these projects. 

Building the Network | We could work through the right-of-way, easements, and permitting processes and the challenges therein. Our strength was in a consortium approach. By working together, aggregating demand, and leveraging our talent within the consortia, we built networks. No one knew everything and that is okay but by working as a group, and meeting every Thursday for three years, we always found the expertise we needed. 

Sustainability | After you put up a network, sustainability is another ballgame. When we put in those initial networks, only half of member Tribes in the consortia had IT departments. We needed to create a workforce training initiative that brought in tribal IT technical and management staff to grow the current and next generation of tribal IT professionals. While there are many job training programs, this one is different because it meets unique tribal needs. 

Workforce Development | During COVID, communities that set up wireless networks employed tribal short-term laborers. To train them, we built faux walls and taught them to do the penetrations to hang the customer premise equipment. These tribal members became the workforce that performed the home installations. The workers that developed a passion for it remained to be part of the new WISP technical teams. We then provided training in network operations center skills and funding to earn industry certificates to advance their IT careers as well. Hopefully, they will continue to work for their tribes. Even if they do not, these are great opportunities for their families.

Dreaming Big | Expanding that to the Santa Fe Indian School, we are trying to build out what we call the Pueblo Education Network. I’m building down from Santa Fe to meet the Pueblo fiber networks and their connection with the Albuquerque GigaPOP (ABQG), a higher education regional network. SFIS will essentially extend the ABQG network to the Pueblos, giving the Pueblos access to national research and education networks. Our students can now participate in high-performance computing research, big data, or artificial intelligence tasks that need to move big data sets back and forth fast.  

It’s a bold move.  Why would a little high school in New Mexico think they can do this? When you’re 49th in broadband and 50th in education rankings, you realize that no one is going to solve digital divides for you. I hope that our experience can be a model for other tribes, if at least to share our experiences so that their path to connectivity can be faster and more efficient.

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