Closing the Digital Divide for Elders…a bridge to information and community

On February 11, 2021, the Office of the President of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in remote southwestern South Dakota issued comments to the National Telecommunications & Information Administration regarding the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program (TBCP), stating it “provides an unprecedented opportunity to address the digital divide in Indian Country.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare how vulnerable our communities are when they are left without basic connectivity—lacking in telehealth, remote learning, telework, public safety, and economic capabilities,” stated then-President Kevin Killer, according to the comments.

“The Oglala Sioux Tribe (Tribe) has been hard by these realities,” he continued, according to the comments. “We are located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which is just approximately 3 million acres and home to a very rural and underserved population.”

“Our citizens often lack basic connectivity, and our Tribe is in need of the infrastructure and resources necessary to deploy and sustain an affordable broadband network,” according to the comments.

The good news is that on August 23, 2023, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced that it had awarded seven tribal nations grants totaling more than $118.8 million as part of the TBCP, according to NTIA’s BroadbandUSA program.

And that includes $19,620,766 for a broadband infrastructure deployment project on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which proposes to construct a last-mile broadband network and install fiber directly connecting 1,821 unserved Native American households with fixed wireless to the home service of up to 50Mbps/10Mbps, according to the NTIA.

(In addition to the Oglala Sioux Tribe, the grants are being awarded to the Shoshone Bannock Tribes (Idaho), the Chippewa Cree Tribe (Montana), Nebraska Indian Community College (Nebraska), Omaha Tribe of Nebraska (Nebraska), Rosebud Sioux Tribe (South Dakota), and Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa (Wisconsin), according to the NTIA.

“The Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, funded by the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, makes funding available for grants to eligible Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian entities for high-speed internet deployment, digital inclusion, workforce development, telehealth, and distance learning,” states the NTIA.

“The Oglala Sioux Tribe is excited to be receiving an NTIA Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program Award,” stated Killer at the time, according to the NTIA.

 “Our Tribe is in desperate need of affordable broadband on our vast, remote Pine Ridge Indian Reservation,” he continued, according to the NTIA.

“We have lagged behind the rest of America for too long, and the COVID-19 public health emergency made the importance of broadband to our daily lives abundantly clear,” said Killer, according to the NTIA.

“The NTIA’s TBCP award will provide the necessary resources and infrastructure for our Tribal Citizens to engage in remote education, telemedicine, remote work, and other activities,” he said, according to the NTIA.

“It will allow our Tribal Nation and our Citizens to thrive in the evolving digital economy and spur much-needed economic development overall on our Reservation,” Killer said, according to the NTIA.

“We are grateful to this Administration for making this award,” he added, according to the NTIA.

However, as we know full well at Running Strong for American Indian Youth®, the vast majority of residents, especially elders, on the rural and isolated Pine Ridge reservation, cannot afford to purchase computers or tablets when there are more pressing financial challenges facing them – such as primarily putting food on the table.

That’s why Running Strong, through our partner on the reservation, the Oyate Teca Project’s Oyate Ta Kola Ku Community Center, is implementing a new initiative – Closing the Digital Divide for Elders…a bridge to information and community” to provide 20 elders with iPads.

However, we are not just distributing the iPads to the selected beneficiaries without first ensuring they know how to use them by providing them with a full eight weeks of training to lessen the catch-up curve and help them to understand the user experience.

According to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the “digital divide” is causing the already-isolated elderly to be even more so “because so much social interaction now occurs online, overcoming that isolation has become even harder.”

According to the IEEE, “the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) reports that a third of adults in the United States over age forty-five report loneliness, and one in four adults over sixty-five as socially isolated.”

The CDC states, “Loneliness and social isolation in older adults are serious public health risks affecting a significant number of people in the United States and putting them at risk for dementia and other serious medical conditions.

In addition, according to the CDC, “recent studies found that: Social isolation significantly increased a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.”

And according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA), Steve Cole, Ph.D., director of the Social Genomics Core Laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles, states, “Loneliness acts as a fertilizer for other diseases. The biology of loneliness can accelerate the buildup of plaque in the arteries, help cancer cells grow and spread, and promote inflammation in the brain, leading to Alzheimer’s disease. Loneliness promotes several different types of wear and tear on the body.”

But having an iPad can make a world of difference for these 20 elders when it comes to communicating with friends and family, particularly important in areas as vast as Pine Ridge, while also offering so many other benefits, such as allowing them to access information on Social Security and other benefits, the ability to conduct online bill payment and support grandchildren in their care with schoolwork.

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