Udall Calls on FCC to Accelerate Broadband Deployment to Tribes
Oversight hearing highlights the Tribal digital divide
WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.), vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, joined Chairman John Hoeven (R-N.D.) to convene an oversight hearing entitled, “GAO Report on Tribal Access to Spectrum: Promoting Communications Services in Indian Country.” The committee received testimony from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Gila River Telecommunications, Inc. Chairperson Belinda Nelson, and Chief Technology Director for Santa Fe Indian School Kimball Sekaquaptewa.
“Telecommunications is at the heart of many changes our nation has seen in the last decade. Yet, too many Tribal governments and their communities lack access to affordable, reliable broadband service, creating a barrier to participating in our modern economy. This ‘Tribal digital divide’ hinders Tribal communities from developing online businesses, accessing telemedicine services, and using online educational tools,” Udall said.
Last year, the FCC reported that an estimated 35 percent of Americans living on Tribal lands lacked access to broadband services compared to eight percent of all Americans. However, the FCC also acknowledged that it relied on insufficient data to estimate these statistics, meaning they likely overestimate broadband coverage on Tribal lands.
“I am a proud cosponsor of S.1822, the Broadband DATA Act, a bipartisan bill that requires the FCC to improve its data collection relating to broadband. Simply put, better data equals better access, resulting in better opportunities to pursue economic development on Tribal lands,” said Udall.
During questioning, Udall challenged the FCC on its July 2019 Broadband Deployment Report’s finding that advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a “reasonable and timely fashion,” questioning how it arrived at that conclusion given the 27-point gap in fixed broadband service between Tribal and non-Tribal communities. In response, the FCC stated that 96 percent of households on Tribal lands have access to LTE 5-1 – which does not meet the FCC definition of broadband.
In response, Udall said: “Tribal nations are not getting the broadband services they need, and they want the FCC to aggressively move to correct that. By making the finding that broadband service is being provided to all Americans, including residents located on Tribal lands, in a ‘reasonable and timely fashion,’ the FCC has shirked its statutory obligation to take immediate action to accelerate deployment of advanced telecommunications capability in rural areas like much of Indian Country.”
The Tribal witnesses provided recommendations as to how the FCC might better bridge the Tribal digital divide. Specifically, Ms. Sekaquaptewa highlighted the need for the deployment of residential Internet access, indicating that “when the students return to their home communities, these Internet-dependent devices [laptops] become paperweights.” Ms. Nelson recommended that the FCC improve its Tribal consultation process and testified that the FCC has not adequately adhered to its trust responsibility to Tribes.
Udall’s opening statement as prepared for delivery below:
Chairman Hoeven, thank you for calling today’s hearing on Tribal access to spectrum.
I want to thank all the witnesses for being here, and give a special welcome to Kimball Sekaquaptewa, Chief Technology Director at the Santa Fe Indian School in my home state of New Mexico. Welcome, Kimball, I’m pleased you are able to join us today.
Telecommunications is at the heart of many changes our nation has seen in the last decade and access to fast, reliable, and affordable broadband has changed the way people live, work, and communicate.
But too many Tribal governments and their communities lack access to affordable, reliable broadband service -- creating a barrier to participating in our modern economy. A barrier to harnessing their economic development potential.
For instance, this “Tribal digital divide” hinders Tribal communities from developing online businesses, accessing telemedicine services, and using online educational tools.
So I ask all of us today, are we doing enough?
Let’s start with some data provided by the FCC.
In 2018, the FCC reported an estimated 35 percent of Americans living on Tribal lands lacked access to broadband services. This compared to 8 percent of all Americans.
In May of this year, the FCC reported that just 46 percent of housing units on rural Tribal lands have access to fixed broadband service. And in New Mexico, as of 2016, only about 24 percent of residents living on Tribal lands had broadband access.
These statistics – as concerning as they are – likely do not capture the full scope of the Tribal digital divide.
We know this because the FCC itself has acknowledged that it relies on insufficient data, and is currently undergoing reforms to its data collection process.
So it’s inexplicable that the FCC’s own Broadband Deployment Report – issued in May of this year -- found that broadband service is being provided to all Americans including residents located on Tribal lands in a “reasonable and timely fashion.”
This “finding” not only grossly misrepresents the well-documented digital divide facing Tribal communities -- it provides cover for the FCC to skirt its statutory obligation to take immediate action to accelerate deployment of advanced telecommunications capability in rural areas like much of Indian Country.
Like many fellow members on this Committee, I cosponsored the Broadband DATA Act. A bipartisan bill that requires the FCC to improve its data collection relating to broadband.
Because, simply put, better data equals better access. And for Indian Country in particular, that will result in better opportunities to pursue economic development on Tribal lands.
This Committee has examined the unique challenges to economic development on Tribal trust lands.
With today’s hearing, we acknowledge that access to broadband is among those challenges. So in addressing the Tribal digital divide, the FCC must view Indian Tribes as partners, not constituents or customers.
Yet it appears -- by its latest orders scaling back Tribal access -- that the agency is not doing enough. Even though its own guidance expresses a commitment to promote a government-to-government relationship with Indian Tribes and engage in meaningful Tribal consultation.
After these orders were overturned on appeal, I’m hopeful that FCC has started to re-evaluate not only how interacts with Indian Tribes, but also how it listens to them.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
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