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Bridging the Digital Divide on Tribal Lands

Lexington, Ky (October 16, 2020) - The last eight months have brought the issue of the Digital Divide to the consciousness of many who may not have been paying attention. The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of high-speed internet for learning, communicating, working, telemedicine, or just staying connected with a loved one. Much must be done to help communities most impacted by the lack of connectivity overcome this barrier to education, jobs and economic opportunity, and an improved quality of life. While the Digital Divide is evident across the country in unserved and underserved rural and urban areas, the issue of lack of broadband infrastructure is more widespread in rural and tribal areas.  

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According to the FCC’s 2020 Broadband Deployment Report, approximately 19 million Americans lack access to fixed broadband. What is very concerning is the data also shows that about a third of tribal lands do not have broadband connectivity. The situation is dire in some states, with Louisiana having the least amount of tribal wired broadband available at only 39%. According to a report released in 2019 by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS), “Tribal communities stand out as being among the most unserved or underserved populations with respect to broadband deployment.”

For years experts have discussed the various reasons for the persistent Digital Divide that tribal communities continue to face:

  • Most tribal lands tend to be in rural areas and have similar issues related to having less population density than urban areas, along with rugged terrain. This makes deployment of infrastructure complex and costly.
  • In some instances, jurisdictional issues between states and sovereign tribal governments have created barriers to deployment.
  • Statutory requirements around broadband funding hinder deployment of broadband on tribal lands. For example, the FCC’s Universal Service Fund (USF) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) are the primary sources of federal funding for broadband deployment in high-cost areas, including tribal lands. Numerous federal entities provide such funding, and each agency has regulations, requirements for matching funds, and restrictions that create barriers to broadband deployment initiatives on tribal lands.

While these issues (and other more complex issues not highlighted in this blog) persist, some progress has been made to ensure tribal communities can advance their connectivity. Last month, a virtual National Tribal Broadband Summit, hosted by the Department of the Interior (DOI), in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, took place. It brought together tribal leaders, tribal organizations, representatives of schools and school districts serving under-connected Native students, tribal libraries and cultural programs, federal program managers, and policy-makers at multiple levels of government to share strategies for expanding broadband access and adoption for tribal communities.

Recurring themes from the five-day summit included the acknowledgment of the importance of community planning, the role of community organizations, and the importance of creating alliances with various stakeholders at the tribal, state and federal level to overcome connectivity challenges on tribal lands. Also, the summit provided an opportunity for federal agencies to bring awareness about federal funding for broadband deployment in high-cost areas and recent changes that made it easier for tribal service providers to deploy infrastructure. Some key opportunities arose in the last few months to help address the Digital Divide on tribal lands:

  • For the first time this year, the FCC launched a 180-day spectrum priority filing window for rural tribes. This provides tribes the opportunity to obtain licenses for spectrum covering rural tribal lands. These licenses make it possible for the communities to set up their own broadband network or contract with other broadband service providers to address their connectivity challenges and close the digital divide. The commission reported receiving over 400 applications for spectrum during the priority window for tribes.
  • In response to the global pandemic, the FCC launched the COVID-19 Telehealth Program to support healthcare providers responding to the ongoing pandemic. Congress appropriated the $200 million as part of the CARES Act. There were 539 recipients, including several providers serving tribal communities.
  • The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) awarded Native American and Native Hawaiian museum and library services $1.2 million in CARES Act grants to help them in responding to COVID-19. The funding was designed to help increase their capacity to provide services and connect with tribe members.
  • On Sept. 16, the FCC directed the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) to open a second E-rate filing window for Funding Year 2020 (FY2020). This new window makes available additional E-rate funding to school districts during the current funding year to “purchase additional bandwidth needed to meet the unanticipated and increased demand for on-campus connectivity resulting from the pandemic.” The window opened Monday, Sept. 21, and will close on Friday, Oct. 16.

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While these funding opportunities offer change and tangible solutions for bridging the Digital Divide, there is still much work to be done to overcome regulation and policy challenges. In his opening comments at the National Tribal Broadband Summit, FCC Chairman Pai talked about some of their reforms at the FCC that are designed to expedite broadband deployment. He stated “in 2019, the FCC authorized a new round of support for rate-of-return carriers, which will ensure fixed broadband is available to over 37,000 locations on Tribal lands. This funding also included a ‘Tribal Broadband Factor,’ which provides a 25% increase in the amount of subsidies that carriers serving Tribal lands can receive compared to similar carriers serving non-Tribal lands.” 

The fact is, tribal lands remain the least connected lands in the country. While we have seen some progress over the last few years, policy changes will need to continue to make it easier for providers and tribal communities to deploy infrastructure. 

In conclusion, as we discuss these issues of connectivity on tribal lands, it is important to acknowledge these communities as sovereign Native American tribes with rich cultures and traditions that should be considered and respected. This requires a tremendous amount of listening, learning and creating custom solutions in compliance with local laws and customs. In 2018, FCC Chairman Pai rechartered the Native Nations Communications Task Force. Its mission is to provide guidance, expertise, and recommendations to specific requests from the commission on a range of telecommunications issues that directly or indirectly affect tribal governments and their people. It is important to collaborate with different groups, such as the Native Nations Communications Task Force, that have a deep and profound understanding of what is needed. Digital Inclusion can be achieved if we continue to work together to overcome barriers to broadband expansion and provide solutions.

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About the Author: Heather Gate is the Connected Nation Director of Digital Inclusion. She is responsible for strategy development and implementation of programs that impact Digital Inclusion for all people in all places. She provides project management services including identification of program challenges and goals as well as day-to-day oversight and funding research.  Heather also serves on the Federal Communications Commission’s Advisory Committee on Diversity and Digital Empowerment (ACDDE).

Resources: Federal Communications Commission. (2020). Eighth Broadband Progress Report, 82% of Residents in Tribal Zip Codes Have Broadband Internet Access, Compared to 94% of Non-Tribal Residents, Tribal Broadband: Status of Deployment and Federal Funding Programs. Congressional Research Services, Improving and Increasing Broadband Deployment on Tribal Lands, Policy Brief: FCC Announces Special E-Rate Filing Window for School District Bandwidth Update.