Post Tech Policy in the Pandemic Rural Broadband Access

FCC: Don’t Abandon Tribes During a Pandemic, Extend the 2.5 GHz Rural Tribal Priority Window 

July 22, 2020 , , ,

American Indian Tribes, Alaskan Native Villages, and the Hawaiian Homelands have some of the worst access to broadband in the United States. According to the Federal Communications Commission,  36% of housing units on Tribal lands do not have access to broadband; on non-Tribal lands, this number is only 8%. Tribes face hurdles to accessing the internet. These challenges are further compounded by many other inequities. 

The FCC created the 2.5 GHz Rural Tribal Priority Window (TPW) in 2019 as part of the reorganization of the 2.5 GHz band for 5G. The TPW gives Tribes an opportunity to apply for unassigned spectrum over their lands — a critical first step to controlling their cyber sovereignty and providing broadband access to their communities. The application window opened February 3 and is scheduled to close August 3. 

Unfortunately, the TPW has been eclipsed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of this, we call on the FCC to extend the application window. Tribal application challenges are further exacerbated by the very inequities this proceeding is designed to address — a significant lack of broadband access and limited basic telephone service. 

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The TPW Begins to Redress Decades of FCC Neglect

The 2.5 GHz TPW makes currently unallocated mid-band spectrum (perfect for 5G service) available to rural American Indian Tribes. This band, formerly the Educational Broadband Service, was allocated to legacy educational licensees and is currently underutilized throughout the country. This spectrum can be used for both mobile coverage and point-to-point 5G broadband access. 

The TPW is a first step to address a long history of poor broadband service on Tribal lands. The FCC has acknowledged that it has a federal trust relationship with Tribes, yet historically has not lived up to the responsibilities and obligations this relationship creates — especially with regard to helping Tribes access and deploy broadband. Lacking an understanding of the unique nature of Indian Country, the FCC’s failure to serve this community has been a longstanding disgrace. The TPW is the first step towards remedying these systemic failings. If the FCC does not take the additional step of extending the application window, this step forward is practically meaningless. 

Without an extension, the FCC will deny hundreds of eligible Tribes a meaningful opportunity to participate in the 5G revolution. We have a chance to address their systemic lack of access, but only if the TPW deadline is extended. Not extending the application window, which has been significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, will seriously harm rural American Indian Tribes.  

Obstacles to Applying for the TPW

Tribes have faced significant hurdles in applying for the TPW, including: (1) stay-at-home orders, furloughs, and deaths from COVID-19 that have delayed Tribal decision-making; (2) the cancellation of the vast majority of in-person outreach and application workshops; and (3) the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA)’s inability to help every Tribe who needs it with surveys of Tribal lands. 

Tribal Government Challenges in the Face of Illness and Death

Quick approval from Tribal governments is particularly difficult right now. Some Tribes face making these decisions while their decision making bodies are ill or suffering from recent membership losses due to COVID-19. Other Tribal governments are furloughed and not working as a result of the pandemic. Tribes are attempting to make these decisions through virtual convenings. However, this process is even more difficult for Tribes that lack broadband access — a hardship the TPW was created to help solve. 

In-Person Application Workshops Were Cancelled

Most application workshops and other forms of in-person outreach were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A network of nonprofits and the FCC continues to host some remote workshops. However, these remote meetings are only accessible to Tribes that already have broadband. We can’t expect members of Tribes to attend remote workshops, and access online application documents, when they lack the very internet access they are applying to bring to their communities.

FCC Mapping Errors

For the TPW, the FCC came up with its own definition of Tribal areas and its own definition of “local presence.” These do not match the BIA’s maps of these lands. The BIA is trying to use GIS mapping to confirm the FCC’s maps and support waiver requests. The Bureau only announced this support in the last few weeks and has already explained it cannot help every Tribe who needs help before the current deadline.   

Current Applications and Auction

An extension will not impact the timeline for the 2.5 GHz auction and will not hurt Tribes who have already filed applications. The FCC can grant American Indian Tribes who have completed applications immediate access to this spectrum with Special Temporary Authority. Those Tribes could begin building their networks immediately and take advantage of 5G networks to serve their community’s telemedicine, educational, and other broadband needs. 

The Window Must Be Extended

The COVID-19 pandemic is an extended global crisis — not a couple of weeks lost to a natural disaster. The TPW deserves unique consideration. The obstacles to applications are exacerbated by the very inequities this proceeding is designed to address. Tribal members and other supporters have worked with extraordinary effort and diligence, sometimes even putting themselves at risk of infection, in order to overcome these obstacles.

If the current deadline remains in place, approximately 80% of eligible Tribes will not be able to take advantage of this 5G ready spectrum. Unless the FCC extends the deadline to February 1, 2021 as requested, hundreds of eligible Tribes, through no fault of their own, will miss this opportunity to access 5G spectrum and will continue to be on the wrong side of the digital divide

Contact your members of Congress now to let them know you support extending the TPW. 

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