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Connecting Tribal Communities to High-Speed Internet

Broadband investment is critical infrastructure investment. Just like access to water, roads, railways, and electricity in the 21st century, broadband internet access determines which communities grow and thrive. For many rural tribal communities, the lack of access to high-speed broadband internet connections leaves far too many of our children unable to learn and compete on an even playing field.

Nearly 70 percent of households in rural tribal lands lack high-speed broadband internet access. That startling statistic is a stark reminder of the work that needs to be done to close those digital canyons in Indian Country.

This, however, is not an impossible to solve challenge. In recent years, we have seen communities across the nation build new networks and expand access. That new broadband infrastructure is improving education, connecting veterans and seniors to tele-health services, and boosting economic development and job-training opportunities, among countless other things.

In New Mexico, the Middle Rio Grande Pueblo Tribal Consortium, a partnership of four Indian Pueblos, recently teamed up to secure nearly $4 million from the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) multi-billion-dollar schools and libraries universal service support program, also known as E-rate, which helps schools and libraries in underserved communities throughout the country spur the development of broadband networks. The Pueblos used that funding to break ground on a new fiber-optic network that will finally connect each of their tribal libraries to high-speed internet service.

Over the last two decades, E-Rate has successfully helped libraries obtain affordable high-speed internet access. In many communities, these libraries are the only public access point for children and community members to use high-speed internet service. For those without access at home, having a central location to access the information, resources, and services needed to thrive in an increasingly digitally dependent society can be a game-changer that generates and enables sustainable social and economic growth.

Broadband connectivity supports a wide variety of services that underpin the social and economic dynamics of our country and has already rapidly transformed industries such as healthcare, education, public safety, transportation, and manufacturing.

Unfortunately, the program’s success has not been felt in most communities in Indian Country. Although over 90 percent of the nation’s public libraries have received these FCC funds through the E-Rate program to support improved internet access, the National Congress of American Indians estimates that only 15 percent of tribal libraries have received any of this critical funding. That troubling disparity makes it clear that we need to reform the program to make sure it is fulfilling its intended purpose of reaching all communities that need it.

The Tribal Connect Act, bipartisan legislation which Senator Heinrich recently introduced, would enable more tribal libraries to apply for E-Rate funding and support. It would also establish a new program at the FCC that would allow tribes that do not have libraries to designate another tribally-owned anchor institution—such as a chapter house or community center—as eligible to apply for support to establish broadband connectivity to provide internet access to students and community members.

We urgently need to invest these necessary resources to close the digital divide in Indian Country so all of our children, no matter where they live or go to school, can learn the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century. Democrats and Republicans should agree that all of our communities can and should have robust access to the internet and the opportunities it affords. We will keep working together to stress the urgency of this issue and identify much needed solutions.