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Heinrich, Hoeven, Luján Introduce Bipartisan Tribal Connect Act To Increase High-Speed Internet Access On Native Lands

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), John Hoeven (R-N.D.), and Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) introduced the bipartisan Tribal Connect Act to make it easier for Tribes to secure high-speed internet access at Native-owned libraries or public institutions through the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Universal Service Fund (USF) Schools and Libraries Program, or E-rate program. 

The FCC established the E-rate program with the goal to equip schools and libraries with broadband support so that every child in America has access to the internet. However, many Tribal communities that do not have a library have historically missed out on being eligible for this critical federal support. The Tribal Connect Act improves the E-rate program by creating an avenue for Tribes without libraries to designate a Native-owned public institution, such as a community or all-purpose center, as eligible for affordable broadband support. 

“An alarming percentage of Tribes in New Mexico lack access to high-speed internet. Expanding broadband access is one of the surest ways to improve education outcomes, boost economic development, and strengthen public safety and civic engagement. That’s why I am proud to introduce the bipartisan Tribal Connect Act to steer much-needed federal broadband infrastructure investments to Tribal libraries, chapter houses, and community centers in Indian Country to ensure that every single child can access high-speed internet. Kids need high-speed internet to do their homework, complete advanced courses, and learn important job skills. We must do all we can to make sure every child, no matter where they live or go to school, has all the tools they need to succeed in the 21st century,” said Heinrich. 

“The Tribal Connect Act is about improving access to affordable internet and high-speed connectivity for students and teachers, as well as tribal communities as a whole,” said Hoeven. “This comes as part of our broader efforts to improve internet access and empower tribal communities in North Dakota and across the country.” 

“The digital divide has slowed growth and limited opportunity on Tribal lands in New Mexico and across the country,” said Luján, Chair of the Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband. “That’s why I’m joining my colleagues to reintroduce legislation that will help bring high-speed broadband to Tribal communities and increase digital opportunities. This legislation provides robust funding and technical assistance to help connect libraries and anchor institutions, moving New Mexico closer to 100% connectivity.” 

Specifically, the Tribal Connect Act of 2022 would:

  • Establish a Tribal Essential Community-Serving Institution Pilot Program to ensure Tribes without libraries can designate a Native-owned public institution, such as a community or all-purpose center, as eligible to apply for USF support from a $300 million fund over three years to provide high-speed internet access to students, teachers and the community within the facility.
  • Provide technical assistance to Tribes to help ensure that Native schools, libraries, and qualifying essential community-serving institutions can fully participate in universal service programs and E-rate. This includes targeted outreach, specific training programs, and direct federal grants. The bill authorizes $50 million in appropriations for these purposes.
  • Require the FCC to develop performance goals and measures to track progress on achieving the strategic objective of the Commission of ensuring that all Tribes have affordable high-speed internet access and telecommunications services.
  • Increase resources for technical assistance by appointing a Tribal representative to the USF board of directors and expanding USF offices that provide application support. 

According to a 2021 National Tribal Broadband Strategy report by the U.S. Department of Interior, while over 99% of the population in urban areas has access to broadband service meeting a high-speed threshold, only approximately 65% of the population on rural Tribal lands have the same access as of the end of 2019. 

In 2021, the FCC updated the definition of "library" in the Commission's rules to provide clarity regarding the eligibility of Tribal libraries and promote increased participation of underrepresented Tribal libraries in the E-Rate Program. This update mirrored provisions in previous versions of the Tribal Connect Act. The legislation Senators Heinrich, Hoeven, and Luján introduced this Congress continues to build off of this momentum. 

The bipartisan Tribal Connect Act introduced by U.S. Senators Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), John Hoeven (R-N.D.), and Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) has received the support of the American Libraries Association (ALA), All Pueblo Council of Governors (APCG), Great Plains Tribal Chairmen's Association (GPTCA), National Indian Education Association (NIEA), Navajo Nation, and Public Knowledge. 

Find a copy of the full bill text here