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Tribal Broadband

Wireless Broadband Likely to be a Key Component in Getting Broadband to Tribal Country



Photo of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at the National Tribal Broadband Summit by Masha Abarinova

WASHINGTON, September 24, 2019 – Better broadband and 5G development is essential to the livelihood of tribal communities, according to representatives from government and telecom at the National Tribal Broadband Summit on Tuesday.

Many tribal members have no clear idea of who owns the available spectrum and how to access it, said Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., in the opening remarks. People living on tribal lands primarily use their cellular devices to access the internet.

Going forward, she said, better broadband mapping is only the baseline of determining what tribal communities need to improve their access.

Also in attendance was U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Few students in tribal communities have broadband access, she said, and that only encompasses the public education system.

Establishing a broadband connection is only a means to an end, DeVos said. The untapped potential of American internet is critical for improving education.

The ongoing development of 5G service was an important discussion during the summit, as mass deployment could benefit both tribal and rural communities.

A decade ago, nobody could have foreseen the benefits that fourth-generation wireless networks, including LTE, would bring to productivity, said former Federal Communications Commissioner Robert McDowell.

5G wireless capabilities are expected to be 100 times faster than the current capacity for high-speed internet, he said. The antennas for 5G towers are expected to be built much closer together.

The greatest percentage of Americans who lack access to fixed terrestrial broadband are those residing in tribal and rural areas, said Steve Sharkey, vice president of Government Affairs at T-Mobile.

Coverage information that can be verified by customers is crucial, he said. That is why T-Mobile is committed to instating nationwide drive tests in order to foster better connectivity.

Sharkey outlined several steps that need to be taken for 5G to become mainstream in the next few years. First, 5G must be integrated into 4G interworking, followed by standalone deployments in several cities. After trial deployments, densification and redeployment of spectrum is required before 5G enters the marketplace.

McDowell claimed that part of the purpose of the Sprint-T-Mobile merger was to use broadband’s untapped market to connect rural Americans with 600 MHz spectrum.

The main goal for furthering 5G development is to create a more cohesive process with our federal and industry partners, said Billy Dove, advisor to the office of the assistant secretary of land and minerals management at the U.S. Department of the Interior. The Interior Department has historically played a leading role in matters between the U.S. and American Indians.

Speaking at the tribal summit on Monday, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai highlighted some of the successes that some tribes were having in closing the digital divide. For example, he referenced Trace Fiber, a Tribally-owned subsidiary of the Chickasaw Nation, which is currently building out a 500-mile fiber ring.

He also highlight how Red Spectrum Communications is bringing broadband to Tribal members using fiber and fixed wireless technologies at the Coeur d’Alene Reservation in Idaho.

Pai also highlighted the FCC’s action to allow rural Indian tribes an exclusive window to obtain Educational Broadband Spectrum to serve rural Tribal lands.

“That’s right,” Paid said, “Before any commercial auction of this spectrum, Tribes can obtain this spectrum for free.  his is the first time in the FCC’s history that we have ever given Tribal entities what we call a ‘priority window’ to obtain spectrum for wireless broadband. I’m proud that it is happening under my watch, and I hope that Tribes will take advantage of it.”


Federal Communications Commission Grants First Licenses for Tribal Radio Frequencies During Priority Window



Photo by Gary Wilson of the USDA of the Colville Reservation. Leaders of the Confederated Tribes were among those pushing the FCC to open broadband spectrum for tribes' internet access use

October 24, 2020 – The Federal Communications Commission on Friday granted its first licenses in the 2.5 GigaHertz (GHz) spectrum to 154 tribal applicants during the agency’s first Rural Tribal Priority Window.

The licenses provide exclusive use of up to 117.5 megahertz of 2.5GHz spectrum and will provide broadband and other advanced wireless services, including potentially 5G services, to rural tribal communities.

Chairman Ajit Pai called this a “major step forward” in the nation’s efforts to close the digital divide on tribal lands: “By prioritizing Tribal access to this mid-band spectrum, we are ensuring that Tribes can quickly access spectrum to connect their schools, homes, hospitals, and businesses.”

“Having visited many of these communities and met with Tribal leaders, I have seen first-hand the connectivity difficulties facing Native Nations,” he said. “I am exceedingly pleased that—less than a year after we announced the timeline for the Rural Tribal Priority Window—we are now distributing 2.5 GHz band licenses to help Tribal communities bridge the digital divide.”

The FCC received more than 400 applications from tribal applicants during the priority window. The agency is still reviewing and processing all the applicants filed in the priority window.

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Members of Democratic Caucuses Call to Modernize Broadband for Rural and Tribal Lands



Screenshot of former Agriculture Secretary and former Rep. Mike Espy, D-Miss., from Rural Caucus Meeting

August 19, 2020 — Members of the Rural Caucus and the Native American Caucus of the Democratic Party made calls for modernizing broadband and energy infrastructure during caucus meetings on Tuesday.

As part of the Democratic National Convention, members of the Rural Caucus opened their meeting by observing the limited digital capacity of rural and native lands, and the lasting toll that the existing absence of modern infrastructure stands to have on education, economic development, and access to healthcare.

Receiving a competitive education today requires that all students have broadband access at home.

Yet “many rural students are forced to go to the library or a nearby community college in order to have internet access,” detailed Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Illinois, arguing that the lengths rural students must go to just to complete their homework are extreme.

“It is crucial we pay attention to what rural families need, especially when it comes to early childhood education,” she said.

Participants highlighted that lacking modernized infrastructure has led to the economic decline of rural regions.

“Rooted in this decay is the decline of rural hospitals,” said former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy. Espy, who served in Congress from 1987 to 1993 before joining the cabinet of President Bill Clinton, is currently running for Senate in Mississippi.

“Rural hospitals form the core of the economic viability for rural towns,” said Espy, yet in rural regions hospitals are closing at drastic rates.

“We lost 130 rural hospitals in Mississippi in the past 10 years,” he said, making the economic and telehealth benefits of universal broadband access all the more crucial.

Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., recently introduced the ACCESS BROADBAND Act, which aims to modernize broadband infrastructure by streamlining processes for local businesses to access federal broadband resources.

Jones said that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s proposed clean energy infrastructure policy is the kind of plan that can bring people together.

Members of the Native American Caucus, which took to the virtual stage shortly after the Rural Caucus, further realized the revitalizing power of an infrastructure bill proposed by Biden .

The bill would expand broadband infrastructure to all rural individuals, in an attempt to reckon with the fact that millions of households are currently locked out of an economy, that is increasingly reliant on digital collaboration.

Native American residents of tribal lands across the U.S. have less access to broadband internet. According to new research from Broadband Now, only 82 percent of residents in tribal zip codes have broadband internet access, compared to 94 percent of non-tribal residents.

Modernized broadband infrastructure is also necessary to leverage the next generation opportunities offered by smart grid and clean infrastructure.

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Federal Agencies

Tribes Have Many Government Programs Available for Supporting Broadband Amid the Coronavirus, Say Officials



Photo of Acoma Pueblo by Ethan Kan used with permission

May 12, 2020 — Education officials catalogued the many government broadband programs devoted to bridging the digital divide affecting tribal communities hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

For example, during the Tuesday teleconference of the Universal Service Administrative Company, speakers from the Department of Education and the Institution of Museum and Library Services also discussed their educational responses to the coronavirus and the availability and uses of funds for distance learning through high-speed internet services.

Further, the recently-passed CARES Act provides American workers, families, and small businesses with direct assistance.

And the Federal Communications Commission’s E-rate program assists with affordable broadband for rural and underserved communities.

“There are a lot of uses for funds [including] mental health services or curriculum developments for educators abroad,” said Jake Steele, Deputy Director of the Education Department’s Office of Educational Technology.

Cynthia Landrum, Deputy Director for Library Services at IMLS, said that a provision in the CARES Act designates funds for tribal libraries and educational systems, such as increasing library and museum bandwidth.

The FCC and other organizations have provided numerous grants to communities hardest hit by the coronavirus. Last week, the USDA announced $23 million in grant investments for rural and low-income communities like Pueblo of Acoma, a tribal community of the kind that the E-rate program seeks to assist.

First Lt. Governor Pierson Siow said that the grant would enable the tribe to “provide high-speed broadband to 95 percent of the community and establish a tribally-owned service provider … helping the Pueblo bridge the digital divide.”

USAC is the FCC’s arm for implementing the E-Rate program that is supported by universal service fund charges on telecommunications services.

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