Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Coeur d’Alene Tribe races to connect citizens to internet before deadline Congress has failed to extend

Coeur d’Alene Tribe IT director Valerie Fast Horse is photographed in Plummer on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. The Coeur d’Alene Tribe has recieved grants funded through the Idaho Department of Commerce funded by the CARES Act congress passed in March.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

When Valerie Fast Horse became the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s IT director in 1999, she said, people couldn’t even get a dial-up internet connection on the reservation.

Fast Horse has worked for more than two decades to connect residents of the North Idaho reservation to the internet, starting the tribe’s own internet service provider, Red-Spectrum Communications, which now serves the majority of households. But the arrival of COVID-19 and the shift toward online life exposed the need to upgrade aging infrastructure for the bandwidth required for work, school and doctor’s visits from home.

In March, Congress came to the rescue when lawmakers passed the sweeping, roughly $3 trillion CARES Act relief package, which sent $150 billion to state, local and tribal governments to cover costs related to the pandemic. The Idaho Commerce Department passed on more than $2 million of that money to the Coeur d’Alene Tribe as part of a nearly $49 million broadband grant program.

That federal funding, however, came with a catch: It has to be spent by Dec. 30. Despite bipartisan support for extending that deadline, Congress has failed to compromise on another relief bill that would do so.

The Idaho Commerce Department, facing the deadline imposed by Congress, set a Tuesday cutoff for its grantees to finish work.

“We’re struggling,” Fast Horse said. “We’re just really on the edge here. We think we’re pushing the 15th.”

On the eve of the deadline, the department granted a last-minute extension until Friday. Now Fast Horse and her team are racing to connect as many families as possible before they’re out of time.

The tribe received grants for three projects, but only two got off the ground after contractors, suddenly busy amid a glut of broadband projects around the state, told Fast Horse the other project would be impossible to finish by the deadline. That project, she said, would have connected 163 homes and improved service for seven more.

“The deadline is what scared a lot of them away,” she said. “One said if ever there’s an extension, they would put in a bid for (the contract), but right now they just can’t.”

A project that brought new or improved connections to 56 homes along Elder Road on the north end of the reservation was completed on time, but the second project hit other roadblocks. That work could connect 500 homes and businesses in Plummer to fiber-optic internet, which offers virtually unlimited bandwidth.

The project in Plummer ran into its first hurdle when the contractors couldn’t get the materials they needed for more than a month, Fast Horse said.

“The supply chain was totally disrupted,” she said. “The Pacific Northwest and California fires destroyed all the infrastructure, and then the hurricanes down south destroyed all that infrastructure, so America was rebuilding all over the place and materials that we normally would be able to get off the shelf just were not available.”

Then, with the deadline approaching, the virus struck. First, a key engineer on the project was hospitalized with COVID-19. Then, at the end of November, the worker responsible for splicing fiber-optic cable told Fast Horse a family member had contracted the virus and he had to quarantine until Dec. 14 – one day before the deadline – forcing her to find a last-minute replacement.

Fast Horse said the coronavirus has made the need for internet access clearer than ever, though its benefits will remain after the pandemic subsides.

“With everyone being in quarantine and working at home,” she said, “I think it affects people’s lives now more than it ever has. In the past, I think people were left behind the digital divide and didn’t really understand the impact.”

Republican Rep. Russ Fulcher, whose district includes the Coeur d’Alene Reservation, said the CARES Act funding is a critical tool to get rural communities connected.

“We’re a geographically challenged state,” Fulcher said. “First of all, there’s just a technical hurdle of getting broadband from point A to point B. The second problem is there’s not enough people, i.e., not enough business, not enough usage to make it worthwhile for most private entities to go to the expense of putting that infrastructure in place. And so if you’re going to provide that service, there’s going to have to be some help.”

“The need is dire for a number of reasons,” Fulcher said, citing the need for educational resources, tools for small business, and telehealth to counter Idaho’s doctor shortage. “The main thing that we have been able to do is open up some of these CARES dollars.”

Multiple bills in Congress would extend the deadline to spend CARES Act money through September 2021 or later. Fast Horse said she is hopeful lawmakers will extend the deadline.

Idaho Commerce Department spokesman Matt Borud said it was too early to say whether the department would do that without knowing the specifics of a congressional act.

“While this deadline was not put in place to obstruct the funds from being used as intended, we are hearing from broadband, health care, and education industries that this has been the case,” Fulcher said in a statement. “It is common sense to eliminate this obstacle by extending the deadline, and ensuring that any future COVID relief package examines these time frames more carefully so that the funds can be most efficiently utilized.”

Not far to the northwest, the Spokane Tribe is facing a similar crunch. A $4.7 million project to install wireless broadband towers, funded by money the tribe received directly from the Treasury Department under the CARES Act, will have to stop after Dec. 30 if Congress doesn’t extend the deadline.

Monica Babine, a longtime advocate for rural broadband who leads Washington State University’s Program for Digital Initiatives, said the current focus on internet access could lead to long-term solutions, with enough government support.

“We do need to have state and federal funding for broadband, especially in those rural and tribal communities where there really isn’t a return on investment,” Babine said. “We have an incredible opportunity right now to really make the investments to be able to not just do Band-Aid approaches but to provide the broadband that we need today and that we need in the future.”