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Havasupai secures license to retain, expand internet access

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — An Arizona tribe whose land is among the most remote in the country plans to expand internet access now that it has a permanent license from the U.S. government.

The Havasupai Tribe had temporary authority for more than a year to use broadband spectrum that was unassigned over the reservation that lies deep in a gorge off the Grand Canyon. The Federal Communications Commission granted the tribe’s application for a permanent license Thursday.

Meanwhile, the agency is considering changes to the Educational Broadband Services spectrum — a channel of electromagnetic waves — including giving Native American tribes that struggle to get high-speed internet the first right to apply for licenses.

Havasupai Tribal Council member Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss said she believes her visits to Washington, D.C., helped win federal approval. She stressed the need for more reliable and faster internet on the reservation that is accessible only by foot, mule or helicopter.

“I was really tickled pink when I noticed it was a separate decision, only based on our permanent license application,” she said. “That’s even cooler.”

The FCC imposed a freeze on new applications for the 2.5 GHz spectrum in 2003 but has granted some exceptions. In the Havasupai case, the agency cited an urgent need for broadband service on the reservation. It said denying the tribe’s application would force the tribe to cut off service to an Early Head Start building, teachers’ homes and students.

Silicon Valley-based MuralNet and Flagstaff-based Niles Radio Communications built the tribe’s network at no cost to Havasupai.

The FCC also said it wouldn’t be appropriate to delay the tribe’s application for a permanent license until it proposes rules for licensing the spectrum and votes on them. It’s unclear when that will happen. The item isn’t on the commission’s tentative agenda for its June meeting.

Tribes and educational institutions say they should be given priority for licenses. Telecommunications companies are urging the FCC to auction off the spectrum to help expand 5G coverage.

Watahomigie-Corliss said she wants to establish an online high school on the reservation. Students are sent to boarding schools, private schools or to live with family off the reservation after completing the eighth grade at a U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs school.

She said she also wants to use the permanent license to help tribal members connect remotely with doctors.

“Telemedicine is supposed to work great for Supai because we’re so isolated,” she said. “No one has been able to financially back fiber to get hard lines down there. And we’ve never had enough megabytes and high-speed internet use to make it happen.”

The license granted to Havasupai covers a 35-mile (56-kilometer) radius from the tribal village of Supai. The tribe has agreed not to lease the spectrum to commercial providers and to meet other conditions like using it primarily for education and serving a third of the community within two years.

The FCC did not receive any comments opposing the tribe’s application. Congressional members, state legislators, Northern Arizona University and others supported it.