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Don’t let COVID-19 strip Indian Country of chance to connect

By every measure, Indian Country lags far behind national access to high-speed internet, and in some cases, lacks internet access altogether. This is a direct result of historical removal and exclusion, underpinned by distance, terrain and higher costs.

Tribal nations also lack traditional sources of revenue, such as the practical ability to tax income and property, and they face endemic and cyclical economic hardship. To be disconnected in a world of connectedness is a great injustice. Now, amidst a global pandemic that is having disproportionate health and economic impacts for Indian Country, when we need broadband more than ever, we are without it.

The Federal Communications Commission overstates levels of broadband deployment in Indian Country, which are not necessarily based on actual deployment but, in many instances, on potential deployment. More shocking and insulting is the FCC’s definition of tribal lands, which excludes areas actually located within tribal lands that have greater population density – arguing these more-populated areas have some modicum of development. Besides being underpinned by faulty data, this new, more restrictive definition smacks of colonialism – as if tribal lands can only be remote, destitute and unserved locations.

Solutions to the tribal broadband problem are fairly straightforward. Get back to the actual definition of tribal lands. Dedicate resources, with specifically defined strategic purposes, to address the underlying lack of infrastructure. And genuinely involve and position those who will actually confront the challenges.

Historically, bringing broadband to Indian Country has been a largely unsuccessful endeavor, requiring negotiation with profit-driven internet service providers that have little if no interest in expanding their networks across tribal lands. Our funding efforts must acknowledge that most industry players are simply not giving tribal lands any priority in their plans, and our funding mechanisms should identify and empower those who will actually get the job done, including tribal nations themselves.

The 2.5 GHz Tribal Priority Window created by the FCC has the potential to fundamentally change that dynamic by putting broadband deployment where it belongs, in the hands of tribal nations in the form of tribally-owned spectrum licenses. The Tribal Priority Window, which is currently scheduled to close on Aug. 3, provides federally recognized American Indian Tribes, Alaska Native Villages, Hawaiian Home Lands and certain qualifying tribal entities with the opportunity to be first in line to apply for free spectrum licenses over their tribal lands. However, spectrum not allocated during the Tribal Priority Window will be auctioned to the highest bidder.

Holding a spectrum license allows tribal nations to exercise their sovereignty and control their digital destiny. With these licenses, tribal nations can, for example, build their own internet networks or negotiate to sublease to an existing wireless carrier to build networks that serve their communities. Because licenses can be leased and sub-leased, they can also turn their licenses into a revenue stream. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, threatens to make this opportunity an impossibility. With tribal headquarters shuttered, tribal borders closed and tribal governments attempting to remotely deal with many competing major priorities, the scarce resources available are focused on public health and safety, and the chance to meet the FCC’s filing deadline is slipping away for many tribes.

Even before the pandemic, tribes faced challenges in obtaining information and preparing an application for the Tribal Priority Window. But the pandemic has multiplied those challenges hundredfold. By the end of February, the FCC halted their limited in-person outreach, and online webinars were no help to tribal leaders without internet access at home.

There is an easy solution here, however. The FCC need only heed the many requests from members of Congress, inter-tribal government associations and tribal leaders from across Indian Country to extend the Tribal Priority Window. The FCC has extended numerous other regulatory deadlines because of COVID-19. Yet it has oddly refused to extend the Tribal Priority Window. This is a simple regulatory lift for the FCC, one that will have a profound and lasting impact across Indian Country. The Tribal Priority Window offers a future in which tribes can build and control their own broadband networks and have viable options for telehealth, distance learning and telework. It is also a future in which tribes are the architects of their communications destiny. If this once-in-a-generation opportunity for tribes to exercise their spectrum sovereignty is to be more than illusory, the FCC must extend the deadline. Without it, tribes will be left out, once again.

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