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Bill would speed broadband access

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland have introduced legislation that would accelerate the deployment of broadband services to Native American communities.

Along with U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, Heinrich and Udall are sponsoring the Bridging the Tribal Digital Divide Act of 2020 in the Senate. U.S. Reps. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., and Tom Cole, R-Okla., are sponsors with Haaland in the House.

“Reliable internet access is fundamental to economic success in the 21st century,” Udall said in a release. “It is unacceptable that Americans living on tribal lands, in addition to tribal governments, face so many barriers to accessing reliable broadband. … This is fundamental to the effort to ensure that the federal government is upholding its trust and treaty responsibility to Native communities.”

Heinrich said access to high-speed internet is increasingly essential to daily life and “brings unprecedented economic opportunities for users, especially for people living in rural areas.”

“Connecting more tribes will strengthen broadband across rural New Mexico and improve education, boost the economy, and increase public safety and civic engagement,” the senator said.

“Access to the internet opens up opportunities for young people and economic growth for entire communities, but Native American communities are the most digitally disconnected in the country,” Haaland said. “Lack of internet access and broadband leads to disparities in student achievement, health outcomes, economic opportunities and even violence.”

The lawmakers cited a Federal Communications Commission report that said less than half of households on tribal lands have access to fixed broadband service, representing a nearly 27% gap compared with non-tribal rural areas. In 2018, the FCC estimated 35% of Americans living on Tribal lands lacked access to broadband services, compared with 8% of all Americans.

The bills would establish the Tribal Broadband Interagency Working Group to improve coordination across federal broadband programs and reduce deployment barriers. They would require that technical assistance be provided to interested, underserved Native communities to develop a broadband deployment plan. They would also streamline the application process for federal grants to support the deployment of broadband services on Tribal lands.

They would also establish a Tribal Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee, set aside FCC and USDA funds for the benefit of broadband deployment on tribal lands and establish the Tribal Broadband Right-of-Way Pilot Program.

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