Building Stronger Tribal Economies Part II: Broadband
Dr. Alexandria Wright

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The 21st century has brought forth numerous changes in how Tribal communities operate due to digital technology and internet connectivity: how healthcare services are conducted, how education is delivered, how public services are accessed, and how business transactions are conducted.  This expansion of broadband usage in communities nationwide has shifted how internet connectivity is viewed in the marketplace.  At its inception, broadband was considered a private good, requiring individual households to purchase their own services and communities to invest their own local dollars in infrastructure.  Now, with its expansive usage for basic services, broadband infrastructure is seen as a public good with infrastructure funding afforded through state and federal governments.  This is a meaningful change that will increase capacity in Indian Country for broadband infrastructure and lessen the digital divide.

Why is broadband important to capacity building?

The implications of lack of access to broadband are far-reaching.  The current era requires digital connectivity in order for Tribal communities to participate in the modern marketplace and access economic opportunities driven by export production and tourism activities.  Most all aspects of Tribal social paradigms are impacted by broadband access or lack thereof.  A holistic approach to community development and building Tribal capacity engages multiple facets of society including healthcare, education, conservation and preservation of natural resources, water use and wastewater treatment, economic development, infrastructure, and communications.  A healthy and educated community creates increased capacity to build and improve on these elements of community development. Broadband connectivity will ensure access to the most relevant healthcare treatments and educational services thus allowing Tribal members to actively participate in educational and workforce development systems and further build capacity to expand Tribal sovereignty and participate fully in the economic system.

What are the challenges to broadband implementation in Indian Country?

According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, current data shows that across the country 8% of Americans don’t have Internet access at the baseline speed for modern digital activity (25 Mbps for download and 3 Mbps for upload). On Tribal lands that number soars from 8% to 35%. This is backed by a 2017 FCC Broadband Development Report which stated 34% of Native Americans who live on rural tribal lands lacked access to sufficient broadband capabilities.  Additionally, 75% of rural Indian Health Service facilities do not have the connection needed for telehealth, and up to 95% of students in one survey reported not having residential Internet service for educational activities.

Part of this disparity in broadband infrastructure development on Tribal lands is due to the historical challenge of accessing funding and technical assistance. The recent legislation introduced by Congresswoman Deb Haaland and Senator Elizabeth Warren in 2020 —Deploying the Internet by Guaranteeing Indian Tribes Autonomy over Licensing on Reservations Act—offers significant investment to address the historical inequities established by Federal Reservation Era policy that created systemic barriers to Tribal economic development and legal jurisdictional complications on Tribal lands and continues to disadvantage Tribal communities into the 21st century.  The legislation states “To date, the [Federal Communications] Commission has failed to implement nationwide spectrum opportunities or uniform licensing for Indian Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations to make spectrum available over their Tribal lands or account for the unmet needs of native Nations in compliance with the Federal trust responsibility.”

As with most initiatives in Indian Country, the challenges faced by Tribal communities in increasing digital connectivity are unique. The current process administered by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) means that in bidding for wireless spectrum, Tribes compete against huge ISPs with vastly larger amounts of capital and technical expertise. Since Tribes have limited broadband connectivity, they have trouble getting timely access to the information necessary in order to remedy these problems. These systematic inequities associated with the FCC’s current approach to bidding for wireless spectrum are largely due to these non-Tribal, private sector companies controlling broadband speed and connectivity on Tribal lands. A 2019 ASU American Indian Policy Institute report advanced four primary policy prescriptions for Tribal leaders to advocate for that would help alleviate these inequities:

  1. Establish the Office of Native Affairs and Policy as a standalone, independent office at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with a permanent annual budget.
  2. Prioritize Universal Service Fund dollars for direct impact on Tribal lands instead of subsidizing competition in hard-to-serve areas.
  3. Legislate the Federal Communications Commission’s commitment to meaningfully include Tribal Nations in the formulation and implementation of regulations through government-to-government consultation.
  4. Establish a Tribal Broadband Fund to support broadband deployment, maintenance, and technical assistance training.

What are the resources available for closing the digital divide in Indian Country?

Resources for broadband infrastructure development have substantially increased over the past year and under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) signed in March of 2021. New programs and associated details for applications specifically for Tribes include the following:

  1. Tribal Broadband Connectivity Grant Program: December’s Consolidated Appropriations Act (CAA) created over $1 billion in grants for the deployment of broadband on Tribal lands and expanded access to remote learning, telework, and telehealth resources. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) oversees the program and plans to release a notice of funding opportunity this spring. This notice will contain details regarding the program and how to apply. It was also mark the opening of the 90-day application window. More information can be found on NTIA’s BroadbandUSAwebsite.
  2. Coronavirus State Fiscal Relief Funds: The ARPA appropriated $20 billion for Tribal governments to fund a wide range of COVID-19-related uses. The fourth eligible use listed in the ARPA language is for necessary investments in infrastructure, which explicitly includes broadband.
  3. Coronavirus Critical Capital Projects Funds: The ARPA also included an additional $100 million for Tribal governments for critical capital projects, “directly enabling work, education, and health monitoring, including remote options,” in response to the COVID-19 health emergency. The application process for this grant has not been released yet, but updates can be found on the Treasury website.
  4. The recently enacted American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) included $7.2 billion to help students and school staff purchase necessary equipment, such as laptops and broadband services to enable learning from home. The program will not fund construction of new networks but will finance the deployment of WiFi hotspots in students’ neighborhoods. The program will reimburse 100% of the reasonable costs of eligible equipment and services. The FCC has issued a notice seeking comment on implementation of the program, including whether to reimburse schools for costs already incurred to facilitate home learning.
  5. HUD: Both the ICDBG and IHBG programs include eligible uses for broadband projects. Both of these programs received additional funding through the ARPA, totaling over $700 million.
  6. USDA: The USDA offers multiple broadband programs that are administered each year through the release of FOAs. Tribal eligible programs include uses for planning and construction among other uses.
  7. FCC: The FCC also offers multiple broadband programs for subsidizing household costs, schools, libraries, and healthcare facilities.

 

Additionally, technical assistance for developing broadband infrastructure proposals and designing infrastructure system may be found in the following resources:

  • USDA – General Field Representatives & State Offices can offer guidance specific to communities https://www.usda.gov/reconnect/frequently-asked-questions
  • Tribal Broadband Connectivity Pegram (NTIA): 2% of awards will be allocated for administrative cost. This must be no more than $50,000 for pre-application or grant preparation costs (planning).
  • HUD – The ICDBG and IHBG programs are both funding sources for broadband projects. HUD also offers funding for TA and Administrative costs. The ARPA allocated $15M for this TA fund. Blue Stone is eligible to be listed for support in the TA Request Form.
  • US Department of Commerce and Economic Development Administration (EDA) – Public Works and Economic Adjustment Assistance Programs funds broadband projects with a listed funding purpose of planning.  This application may require a portion of matched funding.

If you are interested in developing a grant proposal for one of the aforementioned grants, please contact Blue Stone.

 

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"Building Stronger Tribal Economies"