Standing Rock’s Other Pipe Problem: The North Dakota pipeline protesters, and other marginalized groups, need access to communications technology

Written by: Sarah Donnelly

Primary Source : Turtle Talk, November 16, 2016.

Link to Slate article by Greta Byrum here.


The potential impact of FirstNet on First Nations’ broadcast sovereignty has many potential repercussions for both telecommunications independence and the integrity of journalism. If AT&T were to shoulder out competitors like Standing Rock Telecom and exercise control over content broadcast on its network, that could once again lead to a situation where certain content could be blocked by the company, regardless of its importance to the public. Like Facebook, AT&T is not bound by public interest obligations when it comes to news and reporting. Furthermore, big telecom has a history of pricing services out of reach for poor and marginalized populations.

If AT&T’s FirstNet bid succeeds, it could threaten the viability of small operators like Standing Rock Telecom. But to take an even broader view, it could threaten the viability of all communities to organize themselves in disasters—both because of pre-emption and because having more market share could help AT&T push aside smaller, local competitors who are better positioned to fix outages or set up mobile equipment quickly at local sites as needed. Of course, it’s essential for our official first responders to be able to communicate while a catastrophe is underway—but there are many emerging technologies that can help them do so without pre-empting citizen communications, as well as build-out practices that don’t threaten independent and small telecom companies.

This is the emerging question: Will we continue to consolidate resources like water, energy, and communications in the hands of the few and the powerful, distributing them according to consolidated market forces and political power? Or will we build the capacity of local communities to adapt and address emerging needs in our changing world, with its changing climate?

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Sarah Donnelly
Sarah Maev Donnelly is the Program Coordinator for the Indigenous Law & Policy Center at Michigan State University’s College of Law. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Biology from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville before completing her Juris Doctor at Michigan State with a certificate in Indigenous Law.