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Tribal Broadband

Rural Assembly Paints Dire Picture About Lack of Broadband, Impact of Coronavirus in Indian Country

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Photo of Loris Taylor of the Hopi Nation, and CEO of Native Public Media

April 24, 2020—A host of guests at the Rural Assembly webinar on Wednesday painted a grim picture of the state of broadband in rural and tribal life.

The webinar, titled “Has the government’s response been accurate?” attempted to answer that question related these often- forgotten communities.

“The connectivity is not where it needs to be on the rural side of things,” said Roberto Gallardo, assistant director for the Center for Regional Development at Purdue University.

Some of the trends regarding overall progress in broadband connectivity over the years “have been encouraging,” Gallardo said.

But he complained that “there is no digital parity,” referencing the large chasm between connectivity in urban and rural areas.

To illustrate his point, Gallardo related data that his team had recently published: 2 percent of urban households have access to only one provider, while 33 percent of rural households have access to only one provider— a 16-fold difference!

While Gallardo acknowledged that the data is predicated upon the roundly criticized Federal Communications Commission’s 477 data, he assured listeners that its conclusions were reliable.

Edyael Casaperalta, an attorney at Casaperalta Law in Denver, outlined to viewers the four traditional routes for relief that the FCC has offered ever since their establishment by the 1996 Telecommunications Act: LifeLine, E-Rate, Rural Health Care, and High-Cost.

Jenna Leventoff, senior policy council at Public Knowledge, related several other vehicles by which the government is administering aid to rural communities.

Congress has recently allocated $100 million for the United States Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect program. Additionally, Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., has recently proposed a bill to pour $2 billion into E-Rate, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., has proposed a bill to funnel $2 billion to small carriers so that they can provide free internet to low-income Americans who can’t pay their bills.

Irene Flannery, director of AMERIND’s Critical Infrastructure, a tribally-owned insurance provider seeking to facilitate broadband for American Indians,  advocated that the FCC expand the tribal priority window for its 2.5 GHz Auction.

Flannery said that the epidemic has set tribal governments in disarray and that they would need at least 12 months to put forth a sufficient application.

Loris Taylor, CEO of Native Public Media, related the devastating effect that COVID has had on tribal populations. According to Taylor, the Navajo Nation is among the top of the country in terms of coronavirus deaths when compared with other states.

Some tribes are even vulnerable of going extinct because of the coronavirus, she said.

In addition, the Navajo Nation has been under a weekend-wide curfew of 67 hours every on a weekly basis.

“People are dying, and they’re suffering—physically, emotionally, spiritually. Where infrastructure is limited the anxiety is even more pronounced.”

“Unfortunately, this is our test” said Gallardo, referring to the ordeal rural communities are facing at the hands of COVID. “And I’m afraid were not going to do very well.”

FCC

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

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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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Rural

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

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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

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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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