Connecting Indigenous communities: a Tribal affairs specialist on her career in broadband

For Angel Benally, a Tribal affairs specialist at AT&T's FirstNet division and a member of the Navajo Nation, working in broadband has been about building a balance of career and community.  

Benally’s role in broadband was born through the Native American Political Leadership Program, which placed her with FirstNet’s External & Legislative Affairs Corporate internship.

The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) was established to help develop and manage a dedicated wireless broadband network specifically for public safety following the mayhem of the September 11 attacks, when first responders struggled with critical communication during the crisis. In 2017, FirstNet partnered with AT&T to help build out a nationwide public safety network.

“When you look at tech, you think of your phone and you think of the batteries, but you don't necessarily think about how you get the connectivity, the 5G or the LTE,” she told Broadband Nation. 

And while it may feel like this intangible concept, the physical infrastructure is vast and labyrinthine. But that infrastructure is not yet serving everyone — particularly rural communities and Tribal Nations. 

When Benally began working with FirstNet, she didn’t have a connection to work from home, relying on a hotspot from her university, and even that meant dealing with data caps.

“I think about that implication for other people who are smart, who are educated, but there are these gaps in technology and in connectivity,” she said, “I think that's such a disadvantage to others like me who are leaning in, who want to help and who are smart and capable. But there are these barriers that maybe we didn't consider, and we should consider."

"Everything I do is working with Tribal Nations, bringing them connectivity, and that's so rewarding. I get to wake up every day and feel like I'm actually making a difference.”  

FirstNet’s public safety network now covers over 2.97 million square miles, and Angel has helped see that over 120 Tribal Nations are connected (with a 40% increase in coverage on Tribal lands between 2020 and 2022). “Having those numbers are great, but having someone to say, I'm going to be a constant person here, and I'm going to work with you: that's huge.”  

Critical connection   

From natural disasters to health care, Benally detailed the way broadband isn’t just about internet browsing — especially for groups that lack resources.  

“For Tribal Nations you're running on limited everything,” she explained. “You're not thinking about when there's a landslide or when there's a tornado.” But broadband rollouts provide foresight for what can become disastrous. “You connect with people, on a blue-sky day, before the event happens, that [is] really powerful.”  

Benally noted that on the Navajo Nation — which spans 27,000 square miles — officers ride singles, having to travel miles to reach incidents; and broadband can be critical for life-saving response times. 

Additionally, in the increasingly digital structure of education, reliable internet is now imperative for learning. “I think the pandemic underscored the need, especially for schools." On the Navajo Nation, as education moved online through the COVID-19 lockdowns, many were left relying on specific community hotspots. “I remember hordes of cars just huddled around trying to connect so they could do their online work,” she said.  

And just as severely important is access to health care. “You're running on an analog system like pen and paper, but you look at the possibilities of actually having internet,” from skipping office visit wait times and better doctor-patient continuity, telehealth ends up advancing cost and care.

"It opens up a lot of possibilities, and for Tribal Nations, I'd love to see that more," she conveyed.   

Building broadband networks is about building community 

For all the legislative and infrastructural challenges Benally faces, it’s building meaningful relationships and community that fulfills her.  

“What I really love about my job is when you speak with Tribal leadership, you know, in a room full of suits, they're very stuffy and very formal. But when you get down to them on a level, on their homelands, they're very cordial. They're like your family,” she conveyed. “For Native communities, that's just something inherent to us.”  

That familial way of connecting also creates trust to ask for support in critical situations. “If a Tribal chairman calls me and says, ‘I need help, we’re battling a wildfire, we need a deployable out here right now.’ And I can say, okay, let me help with that... that’s really rewarding,” she said.  

Through her experience, Benally has gained insight on a profound challenge for Native people like herself: wanting to explore opportunities and still serve and support their hometowns and people.  

“Indigenous communities, we have really smart young professionals who are graduating, and it's so exciting to see them be a part of the community. Then, they go off the Tribal lands or they go to the big city, and then they want to come back to their home community,” she explained. “But we're put in this system that was imposed upon us from dominant culture, and I feel like we put ourselves in red tape by doing that. So, it's hard for us to come back home and work in our community. Many of us want to, but I think access to infrastructure and resources is hard.” 

Benally expressed a deep gratitude and privilege that has come from her job, as it has enabled a balance of traveling and growing while also working with Tribal groups and empowering more Indigenous professionals to balance career and community. “I would be remiss if I didn't say, leave the door open for others... We're connected, but also, we want to take care of each other.” 

At the end of the day, Benally sees that the core of modern connection ultimately still unspools to an enduring desire to show up for our communities.   

“I'm Navajo, and what we call [community], it’s called K'é. It's harmony, it's peace, it's being together, and you can't have that without your community. Whether it's your immediate family, your friends, people that you live next to or someone across the country, you build this community. That's really my mission; it’s community oriented.”