Heinrich, Heller Introduce Bipartisan Legislation To Increase High-Speed Internet Access In Indian Country

Tribal Connect Act would invest $100 million for broadband connectivity in Indian Country. Bill would help close the digital divide for students and children living in Tribal communities

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Today, U.S. Senators Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Ranking Member of the Joint Economic Committee, and Dean Heller (R-Nev.) introduced the Tribal Connect Act of 2017 to improve broadband connectivity in Indian Country. The bill would increase access to the Federal Communications Commission's schools and libraries universal service support program, known as E-rate, that provides discounts to assist public schools and libraries obtain high-speed internet access and telecommunications at affordable rates. While most of the nation’s public libraries have received E-rate support, only an estimated 15 percent of Tribal libraries have received critical E-rate funds.

“Access to high-speed internet is increasingly essential to daily life and brings unprecedented economic opportunities for users, especially for people living in remote areas. Unfortunately, over 80 percent of rural Tribal communities in New Mexico lack access to broadband internet, which means less access to educational, health, and career-related resources. The Tribal Connect Act is an investment in broadband connectivity in Indian Country so all of our students and children can compete on an even playing field and learn the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century,” said Senator Heinrich. “Connecting more Tribes to the E-rate program will strengthen broadband across rural New Mexico and improve education, boost the economy and increase public safety and civic engagement.” 

“According to the FCC, more than 70 percent of Nevada’s Tribal communities do not have access to high-speed internet. That is an enormous barrier to success for students, educators, and the community as a whole and robs them of the opportunities available to individuals living elsewhere,” said Senator Heller. “Our legislation aims to bring broadband into more Tribal communities not only because it will empower these communities and their students to thrive in the 21st century, but also because internet access is essential to the economic success of our localities, our state, and our country.”

Broadband access is critical for local economies and small businesses and is a cornerstone to improving education, tele-health services, and job-training opportunities. Yet, 68 percent of people who live in rural Tribal communities do not have consistent access to high-speed broadband. A report by the Joint Economic Committee Democrats found that among rural communities, people living in Indian Country are among those struggling the most to gain access to broadband. In Indian Country, a library can often be the only point of access for broadband connectivity in the community. 

In August, Senator Heinrich hosted a Tribal broadband listening session at the Santa Fe Indian School with members of two Pueblo library consortiums representing the Pueblos of Cochiti, Jemez, Zia, Santa Ana, San Felipe, and Santo Domingo. The discussion focused on the FCC E-rate program and the challenges around lack of awareness, application complexities, and current statutory eligibility requirements that significantly hinder E-rate participation and internet access on Tribal lands. 

The Tribal Connect Act would invest $100 million for broadband access in Indian Country by establishing a Tribal E-rate pilot program and would amend current E-rate eligibility requirements to allow more Tribal libraries to apply for the program.

The Tribal Connect Act is supported by the American Library Association, National Congress of American Indians, National Indian Education Association, AMERIND Risk, and the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums. 

“All Americans deserve access to high-speed internet but unfortunately much of Indian Country is on the wrong side of the digital divide,” said Jacqueline Pata, Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians. “The Tribal Connect Act introduced by Senators Heinrich and Heller will help close the digital divide in Indian Country and will help more Native youth connect to online educational resources. The National Congress of American Indians applauds Senators Heinrich and Heller for introducing this legislation to fix a long-standing issue in Indian Country.”

“High-speed internet connectivity is one of the most critical gaps libraries fill in their communities, and tribal communities suffer that gap in glaring disproportion to the rest of our nation. The bandwidth to complete homework assignments, fill out a job application, claim veterans’ benefits or get medical information online should not be a luxury. ALA fully supports the Tribal Connect Act of 2017 and applauds Senators Heinrich and Heller for introducing it,” said Jim Neal, President of the American Library Association.

“In the 21st Century, broadband access is as fundamental to education as a well-built school and a pencil or pen and paper. The National Indian Education Association strongly supports the Tribal Connect Act of 2017 to help provide this fundamental educational necessity,” said Dr. Jolene Bowman, President of the National Indian Education Association. “We thank Senator Heinrich for his leadership on this legislation, and Senator Heller for joining this effort to better serve Native students. We look forward to working with both Senators to move this legislation forward.”

“Although tribal libraries are often the only means of free internet access in Native communities, eighty-five percent do not receive E-rate funding due to eligibility restrictions, lack of awareness, and application complexities,” said Walter R. Echo-Hawk, Board Chair for the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums. “We applaud Senator Heinrich’s commitment to addressing the digital inclusion needs of Native communities and look forward to working with him to improve access to much-needed E-rate funds.”

“Senator Heinrich’s bill holds great promise for the buildout of broadband on Tribal lands. By expanding the eligibility of Tribal libraries, E-rate can better fulfill its promise of providing 21st century connectivity to Tribal and surrounding rural communities. Tribal Nations will be empowered in the broadband solutions that E-rate provides. It will indeed be a great day when Indian Country is no longer left behind in the Internet revolution. We thank Senator Heinrich for joining the ranks of those on Capitol Hill who are helping us get to that day,” said Derek Valdo, CEO of AMERIND Risk, which operates AMERIND Critical Infrastructure.

A copy of the bill is available here and a fact sheet is available here

Join the conversation on the Tribal Connect Act using the hashtag #TribalConnect.