The FCC must extend a broadband opportunity for tribal communities
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Native American communities should have the same access to the opportunities of the digital age as other Americans. Yet, internet access in Indian Country remains stubbornly and persistently low. Addressing this problem requires smart policy and a scarce resource regulated by the Federal Communications Commission known as wireless spectrum. For the first time, tribal communities have an opportunity to obtain wireless spectrum to expand broadband access on their lands—but the challenges of COVID-19 threaten to diminish its potential. The FCC can and should fix that.

According to the FCC, only 47 percent of homes on rural tribal lands have access to broadband networks. This gap has serious consequences for connectivity. In Arizona, for instance, nearly four out of every five people living on tribal lands lack broadband access at home. Even these numbers may understate the scope of the problem. The Government Accountability Office—the top federal government watchdog—reports that FCC statistics contain errors and may overstate the presence of high-speed service on tribal lands.

To increase access for tribal communities, we need the right mix of opportunity, timing, and perseverance.

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Take the Havasupai Tribe in Arizona—a tribal community below the rim of the Grand Canyon. The Havasupai reservation spans more than 188,000 acres across one of the most beautiful parts of the United States. Despite its grandeur, the area is so rural that many broadband providers have found it too expensive to serve with high-speed internet access.

So the Havasupai community did something creative. The tribe obtained special authority from the FCC to build out their own wireless broadband system. They used a part of the wireless spectrum known as the 2.5 GHz band to provide the only reliable high-speed wireless signal available in the community. Today, the tribe uses the network to connect the local Early Head Start program building with students’ and teachers’ homes. For years, Havasupai students had to leave the community to attend high school; now, the tribe plans to use this broadband access to establish an online high school and give its students the opportunity to stay in the community after completing eighth grade.

This is an incredible model. Tribal communities across the country should have the opportunity to borrow and build on it.

Last year the FCC established a “priority window” for all federally-recognized tribes, Alaska Native villages on rural tribal lands, and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to apply for wireless spectrum licenses in the 2.5 GHz band to boost internet service in their communities. The FCC committed to keeping this application window open for 180 days before auctioning unclaimed airwaves for commercial use.

Unfortunately, not long after the application window opened, the COVID-19 pandemic forced tribal communities to focus on more immediate priorities: the health of neighbors and families. The pandemic has hit tribal communities especially hard. The Navajo Nation, for instance, has one of the highest infection rates in the United States. Understandably, tribal resources are focused on health and safety - meaning the pandemic has delayed applications for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to obtain spectrum in the 2.5 GHz band. As of mid-July, of the 514 eligible tribal lands with available spectrum, less than 15 percent have submitted applications.

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We can do better. The FCC’s priority window can deliver major benefits to rural tribal communities that have been left behind for too long. That’s why 16 advocacy groups and indigenous organizations—and 18 U.S. senators—asked the FCC to extend the application window deadline, which is set to close on Aug. 3. Despite that request, the agency is threatening to backtrack on its commitment to tribes by not extending the deadline.

Across the board, the FCC changed policies and extended deadlines to help ensure that Americans could focus on what is most important right now: the health and safety of our families, our neighbors, and our country. Further, when businesses suggested they needed more time to meet regulatory deadlines because of the pandemic, the FCC obliged; the agency delayed the start of an auction in the 3.5 GHz band, citing business disruptions caused by the coronavirus, and granted an extension to a foreign company under investigation as a national security threat to the United States.

Tribal communities face similar—if not greater—challenges, and the FCC should offer those communities the same flexibility. The FCC should extend the Aug. 3 deadline to account for time lost during the COVID-19 pandemic. Doing so is vitally important to the future of tribal lands - because if we give these communities access to airwaves in the 2.5 GHz band, we will do more than provide a spectrum license. We will provide tribal lands with the ability to offer their residents something that is overdue—full access to the opportunities of the digital age.

Kyrsten Sinema is the senior senator from Arizona. Jessica Rosenworcel is commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission.