Money Alone Can’t #ConnectTribes

Policymakers want to achieve universal connectivity -- a point evidenced by their recent substantial investments towards the goal. Nevertheless, those living on Tribal lands have some of the worst connectivity rates in the country.

Policymakers want to achieve universal connectivity — a point evidenced by their recent substantial investments towards the goal. Nevertheless, those living on Tribal lands have some of the worst connectivity rates in the country. While these investments are undoubtedly helpful for Tribal connectivity, a number of no-cost policy changes will help to fill in the gaps and #ConnectTribes. 

The Problems Facing Tribal Connectivity 

Connecting Tribal areas is difficult. Rough terrain and low population densities make it an unappealing investment for broadband providers. That’s why those living on Tribal lands have some of the worst connectivity rates in the country. A whopping 35% of households on Tribal lands don’t have access to home broadband (a number that likely understates how many Tribal households lack broadband due to inaccuracies in the Federal Communications Commission’s broadband mapping data). 

That’s saying nothing of the families who can’t adopt broadband even if it’s available because they can’t afford the service or a computer. Tribal communities have the highest poverty rate of all minority groups. About one in three Native Americans lives in poverty, with a median income of just $23,000 a year. 

Despite extreme poverty in Tribal communities, the high cost to serve these areas is usually passed on to consumers, making broadband in Tribal areas amongst the most expensive in the country. For example, New America’s Open Technology Institute found that non-promotionally priced internet service in the Navajo Nation averages $127.51 a month – over $40 more than the average non-promotional price elsewhere in the country. 

It’s worth noting that despite the high prices, these plans seldom meet the FCC’s definition of broadband (making them barely fast enough to support basic online activities). For example, a member of the Nez Perce Tribe notes that a local cable company is offering 15Mbps plans for $80 a month. Similarly, just four chapters of the Navajo Nation have access to plans offering speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps.  

Existing Funding – Absent Policy Change – Is Not Enough

Tribes currently have access to a number of grant and loan programs to build broadband or promote broadband adoption in their communities. Some of these programs include general-purpose grants, loans, and subsidies, while others are intended specifically for Tribes to use. All told, there are about 130 pots of federal funding that could be used for broadband deployment on Tribal lands.                                                                                                                  

The three primary general-purpose broadband deployment grants accessible to Tribes include the FCC’s High-Cost program, the Department of Agriculture’s Reconnect program, and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s BEAD program. From 2015-2020 the High-Cost Program funded more than 200,000 broadband deployments on Tribal lands, and the Rural Utilities service provided about $260 million in loans and grants for deployment on Tribal lands. The NTIA’s BEAD funds have yet to be distributed.     

Additionally, for the first time ever, Tribal libraries are able to access E-rate funds this year. E-rate funds offer schools and libraries support for high-speed broadband. Previously, many Tribal libraries were not eligible because they didn’t meet the definition of an eligible entity. However, in 2022, the FCC changed the rules so that Tribal libraries clearly qualified for these funds. Since E-Rate is a multibillion-dollar program, Tribal library eligibility is a significant help for connecting otherwise unconnected Tribal communities. 

In addition to these general-purpose deployment programs, the FCC and the NTIA have programs focused on promoting broadband adoption. The FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program and Lifeline program both aim to help Tribal members afford the internet. The Affordable Connectivity Program provides a $75-per month subsidy to those residing on Tribal lands for fixed or mobile internet, while the Lifeline program provides a $34.25 monthly subsidy that is most frequently used for mobile service. Additionally, the NTIA’s Digital Equity Grant program is composed of three separate programs that aim to promote digital equity and inclusion. The NTIA has reserved $15 million for Tribes to create their own Tribal digital equity plans and participate in creating state digital equity plans. Tribes can use the remaining funds for activities that “address the barriers to participation in the digital world, including affordability, devices, digital skills, technical support, and digital navigation.”

Tribal communities also have access to a handful of programs specifically aimed at improving Tribal connectivity. The first is the Department of the Interior’s National Tribal Broadband Grant Program which provides money for Tribes to explore how to build or extend broadband service. The second is the NTIA’s Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, which provides Tribes with more than $1 billion for broadband deployment, subsidies, and digital inclusion initiatives. 

Policy Solutions To Improve Tribal Connectivity

Unfortunately, these grant and subsidy programs are not enough. To fully #ConnectTribes and close the digital divide, policymakers should also implement a number of low- or no-cost policy changes, detailed below: 

  • Tribal Priority Windows: In 2019, the FCC created the 2.5 GHz Rural Tribal Priority Window. This program offered Tribes in rural communities the ability to obtain free spectrum licenses that they could use to offer broadband service to their communities. The FCC should expand this program by creating a new Tribal Priority Window before every spectrum auction. As noted above, these priority windows give Tribes access to spectrum up for auction, at no cost, before the auction opens for regular bidders. Since Tribes often don’t have money to invest like broadband companies, this is a significant boon. Future priority windows should be expanded to enable all Tribes, and not just “rural” Tribes, to apply. 
  • Spectrum “Use or Share”: In order to deploy wireless internet, a company must have a license that covers a particular frequency range in a particular area. However, because wireless internet can be expensive to deploy on Tribal lands, many companies that hold the license to that spectrum (since it covers both Tribal and non-Tribal lands) never use it. Often, Tribes want to step in and provide their own internet, but cannot because someone else already holds the license. Congress should direct the FCC to create a policy requiring license holders over Tribal lands to either use the license or allow someone else to use it until the license holder decides to. This would eliminate a huge roadblock preventing Tribes from deploying over their own lands. 
  • Federal Interagency Cooperation: The Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce’s NTIA, The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Indian Health Service, and the FCC all play a role in how broadband reaches Indian Country. However, it can be difficult for Tribes to navigate multiple programs and processes across agencies. Agencies could help Tribal communities use these funding programs more efficiently just by coordinating with each other. 
  • Tribal Consultation: When state and federal agencies are making rules, they can promote Tribal connectivity by simply coordinating and consulting with Tribes early in the process. This will ensure that rules take a conscious approach to promoting Tribal connectivity.
  • Modifying Build-out Requirements: When government agencies provide funding to internet service providers to deploy broadband, the providers are usually required to build out to most or all of the places they were funded to build broadband. Still, many times, providers do not build service on Tribal lands until last. Agencies with broadband deployment programs should modify their build-out requirements to encourage providers to serve Tribes earlier in the process. 
  • Tribal Control Over Rights of Way: Over 56 million acres of Tribal lands are currently held in trust by the federal government for the benefit of American Indian and Alaska Natives. Since the lands are not owned by individual Tribal members or the Tribes themselves, building broadband (or other utilities) requires going through an approval process with the federal government. The Bureau of Indian Affairs took significant steps in 2015 to streamline its approval process and to eliminate a number of outdated obligations, but more work remains to be done. As the Tribal members of the FCC’s Native Nations Communications Task Force explained in their 2019 report, many carriers lack experience in applying for rights-of-way/easements on Tribal lands and allotments and chose to go around Tribal lands rather than hire staff and pay the costs of the survey to utilize the BIA process. Greater control over access to rights-of-ways by the Tribal governments could help further reduce this barrier to deployment. 
  • Use Spectrum Auction Proceeds for Tribal Broadband Adoption: In order to adopt broadband, consumers must have a device and know how to use the internet. Tribes should focus on promoting digital inclusion initiatives. One way of promoting these programs is by using spectrum auction proceeds. Each spectrum auction can net the government billions of dollars. All told, spectrum auctions have brought in $230 billion dollars. We support the Airwaves for Equity coalition’s proposal that Congress should create a digital equity foundation to advance various broadband adoption initiatives, including digital literacy training, device access, and affordability.

While steady funding provides a great opportunity to #ConnectTribes, we’ll need more than a high cash flow to get the job done. These low- or no-cost policy changes would go a long way towards improving connectivity in Tribal communities, helping to ensure that no one gets left behind in the digital era.