Window Opens For Tribes To Seek Federal Licenses For Rural Broadband Access

Sign at headquarters of Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation
Leaders of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation were among those pushing the FCC to open broadband spectrum for tribes' internet access use. CREDIT: GARY WILSON / USDA - TINYURL.COM/YB562X5A

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FELICIA FONSECA / AP

The Federal Communications Commission opened a window Monday for federally recognized tribes to apply for licenses that could help establish or expand internet access on their lands.

Tribes had pushed to be first in line for mid-band spectrum licenses that largely are unassigned across the western United States and once were reserved for educational institutions. The 2.5 Ghz-band of spectrum — channels of electromagnetic waves — are seen as key to expanding 5G access.

The FCC estimates that about one-third of people living on tribal lands don’t have access to high-speed internet, but others say the figure is twice as high.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai told tribes gathered in Washington last month for a broadband workshop that the licenses could be a “game-changer,” allowing tribes to consult online with specialists, work from home, job search, start online businesses or take classes online.

“I’m not speculating when I saw that this spectrum could deliver major benefits to rural tribal communities,” he said.

Among the tribes pushing for the FCC to make the moves was the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, headquartered in Nespelem, Wash. 

“It is a safety and health aspect on our reservation,” Rodney Cawston, chairman of the Colville Tribes, told the public radio Northwest News Network in August 2018. “We have so many needs and unmet needs, because all of our communities are rural.”

Mariel Triggs, chief executive of MuralNet, tests broadband internet equipment in Fort Washakie on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. CREDIT: Patrick Lawson via AP

Mariel Triggs, chief executive of MuralNet, tests broadband internet equipment in Fort Washakie on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. CREDIT: Patrick Lawson via AP

The tribal priority window closes Aug. 3, 2020.

Some organizations see limits to the licensing rules that they are challenging with the FCC.

Land designated for Native Hawaiians is included in the push to expand internet access to rural, tribal areas. But, Native Hawaiians can’t apply for the licenses because they’re not among the 574 federally recognized tribes.

The Department of Hawaiian Home Lands is asking the FCC to waive the eligibility requirement so it can apply on behalf of Native Hawaiians who live on homesteads across 318 square miles (823 square kilometers) on six islands.

“This trust relationship is uniquely similar to that of federally recognized tribes and, yet, not affording Native Hawaiians a similar opportunity for access to spectrum licenses creates an inequity that is contrary to the public interest,” the department wrote to the FCC last month.

Burt Lum, broadband strategist for the state of Hawaii, said the home lands have varying degrees of connectivity.

“It’s technology enabling a community for self-determination,” he said.

One of the largest organizations representing tribes, the National Congress of American Indians, is asking the FCC to reconsider eligibility requirements, particularly when it comes to the definition of tribal land and the inclusion of “rural.” The organization said tribes that don’t have reservations or that don’t have contiguous parcels of trust land would be left out.

The FCC defined rural tribal lands as being outside urbanized areas and with a population of less than 50,000 people. The National Congress of American Indians said that could exclude tribes with land near Seattle or Phoenix, for example.

“This trust relationship and responsibility applies equally to all federally recognized tribal nations, not just to certain sub-sets