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Tribal Broadband

Alaska Predicted to Receive a Majority of Tribal Broadband Funds

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held Wednesday hearing exploring broadband investments in Tribal communities.

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Photo of Chairman Manuel Heart courtesy Matt Nager and KSJD Community Radio

WASHINGTON, January 12, 2022 — Alaska’s remoteness might lead the state to receive a majority of federal government funds allotted to broadband for Tribal communities.

“Alaska is going to be one of the highest areas of need,” said Hallie Bissett, executive director of the Alaska Native Village Corporation Association, speaking at a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday.

As many as 233 of Alaska’s native communities do not have access to broadband at 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) downline x 3 Mbps upload service, she said. “That’s unserved, everybody. Unserved. Not underserved.”

The committee’s Wednesday hearing on “Closing the Digital Divide in Native Communities Through Infrastructure Investment” aimed to collect feedback on distribution of Tribal broadband funds.

More money needs to be spent on better broadband access for education in Tribal communities. Manuel Hart, chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in Towaoc, Colorado, said, “We’ve had to put in hotspots where parents can bring their students to the parking lot just to access the internet.”

Screenshot of Manuel Hart during the hearing.

Hart said his communities have no access to fiber and need fiber to every home in his community.

Panelists also discussed access to telehealth as the pandemic continues.

William Smith, a veteran and a spokesperson from the National Indian Health Board, said that if the government fiscally bolsters telehealth programs within Tribal communities, residents will be able to save money and access the healthcare they might not otherwise receive.

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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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