New high-rise hotel at Sycuan
The new high-rise hotel at the Sycuan Casino Resort. Courtesy of the tribe

In a rural pocket of east San Diego County sits the home of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation. The Sycuan Reservation was set aside a hundred and fifty years ago by President Ulysses S. Grant.

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One square mile became home to a rural band of Mission Indians on land that lacked resources and wasn’t suitable for farming. It was a rough new home in a very poor area. Nonetheless Sycuan’s people have succeeded, despite all odds being stacked against them.

What has differentiated Sycuan from other reservations in San Diego County? Despite the inability to profit from agriculture and cattle, they have invested in economic development projects that have led to successful ventures, such as their casino, a high-rise hotel, a golf course, downtown San Diego hotels, a bay boat anchorage and other businesses with over 2,000 employees.

A decade or so ago, the Sycuan tribal government recognized opportunity and allied itself with a private cable company to bring fiber optic technology to the reservation, providing its residents with fast and reliable internet. An expensive investment at the time, this infrastructure has improved over the years and is set up for new innovations, such as 5G, to be quickly deployed to the reservation.

As the current pandemic unraveled, their wireless infrastructure has proved critical to the reservation’s residents. Their community health and education initiatives, including community college courses have continued remotely.

Unfortunately, the success of Sycuan is rare. Some of the 18 Indian reservations across San Diego County lack infrastructure, access to services, and economic development. These conditions can have dire consequences. Indian reservations across the country have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Navajo Nation, where about 300,000 Navajos live in the Four Corners area of Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico, for example, experienced some of the highest rates of coronavirus cases in the nation. Their home is hundreds of thousands of square miles of beautiful, desolate land with large areas within the reservation having little infrastructure.

It’s no secret that Native American populations across the United States face countless barriers to accessing healthcare or other services that most Americans easily access in cities and suburbs.

Infrastructure, access to essential services, and economic opportunities help save lives, improve quality of life, and contribute to long term economic prosperity. Sycuan is partially able to thrive because of it’s past and current investments in economic development projects and in constantly improving their infrastructure. In this digital age, working to expand and improve telecommunications infrastructure, as Sycuan did, is important in the advancement of services and economic opportunities for everyone.

Today, a significant number of American children are at a disadvantage due to lack of access to internet service. During the pandemic, we have seen this reality as students did their homework for school on sidewalks outside fast-food restaurants or with the family mobile phone.

Today, we rely on different forms of digital communications, not only for online schooling, but to make appointments, health care and to order billions of dollars of goods and services. The digital divide in all communities is critical and an issue that needs to be addressed quickly.

Not only will investing in this infrastructure help provide internet access for more people, it will also create jobs. Telecommunication companies, such as Crown Castle and carriers like Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile, are working overtime to deploy 5G infrastructure in San Diego County and across the country. In California alone, 2.3 million 5G-related jobs and an additional $25.3 billion in gross domestic product can be developed by 2025 according to an Accenture study commissioned by San Diego-based Qualcomm.

Research indicates a national potential to create or change up to 16 million jobs while generating up to $1.5 trillion in additional national GDP between now and 2025. The economic impact is extremely valuable, especially to areas that lack resources.

This investment in critical infrastructure will stimulate local economies and provide reliable internet connection with the necessary bandwidth.

As a country, we need to focus on investing in wireless infrastructure. Improvements to existing infrastructure, as well as deploying wireless infrastructure to rural and Native American communities, is critical in addressing the digital divide. Real-time bandwidth in every home will improve people’s access to essential services and support students as many return to hybrid, virtual and in-person classes this month.

Sycuan’s 640 rocky acres of dirt and granite are a testament to the significance of wireless infrastructure in helping to move communities forward. Economic investments and modern Internet connections have changed Sycuan’s rural home from a patch of unforgivable terrain to one of prosperity and promise.

Raoul Lowery Contreras is a Marine Corps veteran, political consultant and author of the new book White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPS) & Mexicans. His work has appeared in the New American News Service of the New York Times Syndicate.