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COVID-19 undercuts tribal access to free wireless spectrum

Irene Flannery, director of AMERIND Critical Infrastructure.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Tribal entities across the country have a unique opportunity to obtain unassigned spectrum licenses for free to build out broadband connectivity on their lands – but the coronavirus is impeding efforts to submit applications before the federal offer ends on Aug. 3.

Prominent tribal organizations filed an “emergency motion for stay” on July 21 urging the Federal Communications Commission to extend the deadline by six months to February 2021, but so far to no avail, said Irene Flannery, director of AMERIND Critical Infrastructure, which assists tribes in deploying high-speed broadband.

Under the FCC’s Rural Tribal Priority Window, which opened on Feb. 3 and closes Monday, tribal applications for licenses to unassigned spectrum in the 2.5 gigahertz band will be granted for free for the first time, greatly boosting the ability of Native American governments and entities to take control of broadband deployment in their own communities, Flannery told the Journal.

“It’s the first time the FCC has created a priority tribal window for spectrum licenses,” Flannery said. “It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity.”

But with tribal territories hit hard by the coronavirus, most Native American governments and entities are struggling to contain the pandemic in their communities, disrupting ability to respond to the FCC offer.

“The priority window sounded great, and then COVID-19 hit almost at the same time,” Flannery said. “Pueblo borders and governments closed as health and safety became their priority. We’re concerned many tribes will miss this opportunity because they’re dealing with COVID.”

All unallocated spectrum in the 2.5 GHz band will go to open auction after the priority window closes, meaning commercial entities will likely win those licenses.

“The highest bidder wins at auction, and tribal communities have not historically been successful there,” Flannery said. “They get outbid by commercial providers.”

The problem is, commercial licensees have done little to build broadband connectivity in tribal areas, where the digital divide is immense. FCC data shows only 45.5% of residents in rural tribal areas have access to purchase broadband, and only 38% of people in those places can actually afford to subscribe, according to Voqal, a nonprofit working to advance connectivity.

“Big providers hold many licenses, but they haven’t brought broadband to tribal lands,” Flannery said. “If they hold the licenses, they control provision of service.”

By obtaining their own licenses, tribal governments and entities can work to build their own broadband networks on their own or in partnership with commercial providers. They can also sublease spectrum to providers who commit to do projects.

The 2.5 GHz band, currently used for educational broadband service, is suitable for both mobile coverage and fixed point-to-point uses.


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