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GUEST OPINION. In rural northeast Oklahoma, the heart of the Cherokee Nation, a transformation is underway. The tribe has launched an $80 million project to build 15 new cell towers to fill gaps in broadband access across the 7,000-square-mile Cherokee Nation Reservation.

This visionary project will address immediate broadband needs and create lasting opportunities in health care, education and business development for Cherokee citizens and our neighbors in communities all over the reservation.

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In today’s interconnected world, access to cell service and broadband internet is no longer a luxury; it is a necessity. Most Americans can take those connections for granted, but large parts of rural America and especially Indian Country have lagged behind. We can’t let our Cherokee communities wither on the vine from lack of access.

That’s why we are making the largest effort to improve broadband connectivity in the tribe’s history. We expect to have all towers up and running in about two years. This investment will bring new life and resources to the close-knit, rural communities where the Cherokee language is spoken and Cherokee culture is held most dearly. Families in these communities will no longer have to choose between staying close to their culture and participating in the wider world.

We’ve seen remarkable success already in Delaware County. Last year, we collaborated with AT&T to install a cell tower and provide reliable cell service in the Kenwood community. The beacon of hope that connectivity has brought to Kenwood serves as inspiration for the 16 communities slated for new cell towers in the next couple years.

The new towers will go up throughout Adair, Delaware, Cherokee and Sequoyah counties, with the network also crossing into parts of Mayes County. They will serve the communities of Belfonte, Bell/CC Camp, Brent, Brushy, Chewey, Christie, Dry Creek, Eucha, Greasy, Marble City, Oakhill/Piney, Oaks, Proctor, Tailholt and Vian.

The initiative goes hand in hand with Cherokee Nation's broader efforts to promote digital inclusion. Last year, we collaborated again with AT&T to establish the first Connected Learning Center in Catoosa. That facility – the J.W. Sam-Gadusi building – is providing internet access and educational tools to Cherokees and other Native citizens facing connectivity barriers.

Cherokee Nation Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr.

Federal grants from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, the U.S. Department of Interior's Indian Affairs Office of Indian Energy and Economic Development, and funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) have been instrumental in making this $80 million initiative a reality.

During the pandemic, when the need for reliable connectivity became so visibly amplified, Cherokee Nation responded by setting up drive-up Wi-Fi locations and distributing thousands of hot spots to students. This new work is simply the latest evolution of that commitment to connectivity. As we empower our rural and underserved communities, Cherokee Nation is building a brighter, more connected future for our citizens in northeast Oklahoma.

Chuck Hoskin. Jr. is the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.

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