VIDEO: Udall Addresses the Digital Divide in Indian Affairs Oversight Hearing on Tribal Broadband Access
WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Tom Udall, vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, highlighted the need for improved data collection and tribal consultation to address the digital divide in an Indian Affairs oversight hearing entitled, "GAO Reports Relating to Broadband Internet Availability on Tribal Lands.”
The committee called the oversight hearing to review findings from two new Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports (1, 2). The first report reveals that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) overstates broadband availability in Indian Country, indicating the digital divide is even larger than previously reported. The second report details the need for the FCC and the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utility Service (RUS) to facilitate partnerships that assist Tribes in their efforts to expand broadband access.
At the hearing, Udall pressed FCC officials on issues with the agency’s tribal consultation policies, stating, “I am concerned that much of this bad data results from a failure to include Indian tribes in the process.” Udall continued, “Tribal consultation is not just a check-the-box exercise. Robust consultation, where the FCC doesn’t just show up and listen – but actually learns from Tribes – will make for better data, better decisions, and better outcomes for everyone.”
Udall also drew attention to the negative impact that the digital divide has on Native students throughout Indian Country. “Nearly one third of kids in New Mexico are at risk of falling behind at schools simply because they can’t get on the Internet at home,” Udall said. “It’s past time to end the ‘homework gap’ – in New Mexico and in all of Indian Country.”
Citing legislation he introduced earlier this year that would allow FCC to reimburse schools that place Wi-Fi technology on school buses, Udall asked AMERIND Risk executive and former FCC regulator Geoffrey C. Blackwell about the importance of making sure the FCC’s schools and libraries connectivity program, known as “E-Rate,” has the flexibility to support innovative solutions in tribal communities.
Blackwell agreed that putting Wi-Fi on school buses would help address the digital divide impacting tribal schools, noting “I can’t think of a single tribal educator that would be opposed to this.” Blackwell continued, “It would simply extend the classroom for students, and I think that is a great idea.”
Udall’s opening statement as prepared for the Oversight Hearing is below:
Chairman Hoeven, thank you for calling this hearing today on the very important topic of the Digital Divide in Indian Country.
I want to thank all the witnesses for being here and introduce two on our panel.
Described by many as a “cyber-warrior,” Geoff Blackwell was the first tribal member to work at the Federal Communications Commission. He now works with Indian Tribes across the country to secure federal funding for broadband projects.
I am also pleased to welcome Mr. Godfrey Enjady from Mescalero Apache. He’ll also testify before the Senate Commerce Committee tomorrow about tribal broadband. Godfrey’s tireless work ethic on display here in the Senate is exactly why he’s been so successful in tackling the digital divide back home in New Mexico.
Back home, that digital divide is something tribal communities know all too well.
80 percent of those living on tribal lands in New Mexico do not have access to broadband.
Just think about that for a moment . . . Four out of five people without broadband access. Without access to a tool that is now a basic necessity for school . . . for healthcare . . . for economic development . . . for public safety.
The findings of the Government Accountability Office are troubling. They suggest that the chasm between those with Internet and those without may actually be even larger than previously reported.
Without good, reliable, and verifiable data, the FCC and Rural Utility Service are just flying blind. Bad data makes for bad decisions, and there are tens of billions of federal dollars at stake for tribal communities. I am concerned that much of this bad data results from a failure to include Indian tribes in the process.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Tribal consultation is not just a “check-the-box exercise.” Tribal consultation is about the government-to-government relationship. But consultation is also about good governance.
Robust consultation -- where the FCC doesn’t just show up and listen -- but actually learns from tribes will make for better data . . . better decisions . . . and better outcomes for everyone.
For example, in New Mexico, the Pueblo of Pojoaque, Santa Clara Pueblo, Tesuque Pueblo and Ohkay Owingeh joined together to form REDI Net, a community-owned broadband network.
With federal grant funds, they were able to deploy 136 miles of fiber optic cables. That means that folks in the area can now connect in life-changing ways -- from telemedicine to distance learning. It also means first responders have the necessary communications equipment -- a potentially life-saving difference.
Despite the progress in some parts of Indian Country, GAO reports that the FCC and R-U-S must do far more to get funding to tribes for shovel-ready projects. We now have four reports from the GAO on this topic, and another on the way.
That’s going to be five reports in a little over ten years. During that time, the FCC and RUS sent to Indian tribes only 0.7 percent of their total federal funds available. You heard those numbers right. A little less than $240 million dollars out of $34.6 billion made available.
While these GAO reports are extremely helpful, I urge my colleagues not to fall prey to paralysis by analysis. We know there’s a digital divide. Whether it’s 80 percent of the tribal population or 40 percent of the population left without broadband access – it’s wholly unacceptable in this day and age when the Internet is an absolute necessity.
Now is the time to do something. I hope this hearing serves as a call to action. An opportunity to find out about what we can actually do, today, to start taking steps to close this divide.
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