Heinrich Urges FCC To Ensure Rural Tribal Communities Have Equal Internet Access

Sen. Heinrich leads Senate Democrats in calling on FCC Chairman Pai to extend period for Tribal governments to complete applications for spectrum for wireless broadband and increased mobile coverage in Indian Country in light of COVID-19

WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) led 17 Senate Democrats in a letter calling on Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai to request that the FCC extend the 2.5 GHz Rural Tribal Priority Window by 180 days. Extending this deadline would allow Tribal governments additional time to secure access to unassigned spectrum over tribal lands suitable for both mobile coverage and broadband services as Indian Country continues to be ravaged by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There is a disproportionate impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had in Indian Country and the need for broadband and other wireless services could not be more apparent. Because Tribes have historically lacked access to spectrum to deploy broadband networks on tribal lands, 1.5 million people living in Indian Country have been left without basic access to healthcare, public safety, and educational services.

As communities across the nation continue to face public health response and connectivity issues, the lawmakers are urging the FCC to understand that “these same challenges are also impacting the ability of Tribal governments to participate in FCC proceedings. Additionally, rural tribal communities represent some of the least connected people in America. For example, according to the FCC's most recent Broadband Progress Report, more than 60 percent of residents on New Mexico's tribal lands lack access to high-speed broadband. Furthermore, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the broadband data collected by the FCC overstates service in tribal communities, meaning the number of residents without access is higher than what was reported by the FCC. All of this underscores the need for more comprehensive assistance and engagement on tribal lands.”

The lawmakers continued, “As you know, this spectrum can deliver significant benefits to rural tribal communities. Tribal governments should not be precluded from having an opportunity to apply for spectrum as a result of this public health emergency. An extension of the 2.5 GHz priority window will help ensure that tribes have adequate time to make the most of this first-of-its-kind opportunity. Accordingly, we urge the FCC to extend the Rural Tribal Priority Window by 180 days and commit to ensuring every rural tribal community has an equitable opportunity to receive spectrum licenses.”

The letter, led by Senator Heinrich, was also signed by Vice Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), and U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Angus King (I-Maine), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii).

The letter is supported by the National Congress of American Indians.

“This pandemic lays bare the fact that many American Indian and Alaska Native communities lack essential services. Extending the tribal priority filing window and the start date for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund would allow tribal nations to prioritize response and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic without having to risk missing a historic opportunity to bridge the digital divide,” said National Congress of American Indians CEO Kevin Allis.

Senator Heinrich also recently introduced legislation to ensure Native American communities have equal access to telehealth, education opportunities, and economic relief during the COVID-19 pandemic. The COVID-19 DISASTER in Indian Country Act would direct the FCC to grant Indian tribes emergency temporary authority of available spectrum on tribal lands so they can immediately deploy broadband networks on tribal lands during this pandemic. The bill has more than 200 endorsements from across the country, including more than 100 Tribes and Native Hawaiian communities.

Read the full text of the letter below or by clicking HERE.

Dear Chairman Pai:

In light of the continuing novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and to ensure Indian tribes in rural areas enjoy the same access to the Internet as the rest of the United States, we respectfully request that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) extend the 2.5 GHz Rural Tribal Priority Window opened on February 3, 2020, by 180 days.

As you know, on July 10, 2019, the FCC adopted new rules to bring 2.5 GHz spectrum to auction. The agency established a “priority window” to serve rural tribal lands. In addition, the FCC committed to keeping that window open for 180 days to give tribes time to apply.

As the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. continues to rise and more and more Americans are told to stay home, the true extent of the crisis is becoming more apparent daily. For most Americans, the immediate focus is on the health and safety of our families, our neighbors, and the nation as a whole. To that end, we are pleased to see that the FCC has extended the time for the public to prepare for and participate in some of its upcoming auctions, such as the 3.5 GHz band and the FM broadcast service. This will help ensure that the public has adequate time to participate as we get through this crisis.

These same challenges are also impacting the ability of Tribal governments to participate in FCC proceedings. Additionally, rural tribal communities represent some of the least connected people in America. For example, according to the FCC's most recent Broadband Progress Report, more than 60 percent of residents on New Mexico's tribal lands lack access to high-speed broadband. Furthermore, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the broadband data collected by the FCC overstates service in tribal communities, meaning the number of residents without access is higher than what was reported by the FCC. All of this underscores the need for more comprehensive assistance and engagement on tribal lands.

As you know, this spectrum can deliver significant benefits to rural tribal communities. Tribal governments should not be precluded from having an opportunity to apply for spectrum as a result of this public health emergency. An extension of the 2.5 GHz priority window will help ensure that tribes have adequate time to make the most of this first-of-its-kind opportunity. Accordingly, we urge the FCC to extend the Rural Tribal Priority Window by 180 days and commit to ensuring every rural tribal community has an equitable opportunity to receive spectrum licenses.

Thank you for your prompt attention to this request.

Sincerely,