VIDEO: Udall Builds Support for Expanding Broadband Access in Indian Country at Senate Commerce Committee Hearing
Many Tribes across the country lack broadband access which is more vital than ever while urging residents to stay at home amid the COVID-19 pandemic
Industry representatives testify in support of Udall’s bill to bridge the digital divide in Indian Country
VIDEO LINK: Udall’s question begins at the 1:32:47 mark here.
WASHINGTON—Yesterday, U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.), a member of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee and vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, pressed representatives from broadband service providers to focus on expanding broadband internet access to Indian Country. Each representative on the witness panel expressed support for Udall’s legislation, the Bridging the Tribal Digital Divide Act of 2020, and committed to expanding service to Tribal lands during and after the COVID-19 crisis.
According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), less than half of households on Tribal lands have access to fixed broadband service. This represents a nearly 27-point gap compared to non-Tribal rural areas. This gap only widens when compared to the country-wide average. In 2018, the FCC estimated that 35 percent of Americans living on Tribal lands lacked access to broadband services, compared to eight percent of all Americans.
“Prior to COVID-19, Tribal communities were significantly behind much of the Nation in terms of access to affordable broadband service,” Udall began. “Sadly, the pandemic has only exacerbated this reality. While Tribal communities grapple with COVID-19 response, they must simultaneously adjust to an increasingly broadband-reliant society. Now more than ever, broadband service is critical to access telemedicine, online education, and teleworking. My bill, the Bridging the Tribal Digital Divide Act, sought to update existing authorities to rapidly address this inequity.
“One provision of my bill created a Tribal set-aside under the Universal Services Fund, similar to what the FCC did under the Tribal Mobility Fund,” Udall continued.
“What should Congress and the FCC do in order to bridge the Tribal digital divide? Do you support further set-asides under the Universal Services Fund for Tribal communities?” Udall asked.
“I can tell you that our industry is doing its best to work closely and in close coordination with the Native American community and is committed to continue to work closely with them,” replied Jonathan Spalter, President and Chief Executive Officer of USTelecom. “Recently, the Navajo Nation leadership worked to expedite permitting and rights of way issues that were impeding the speedy delivery of broadband to Navajo lands in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. Frontier Communications is working with them to get this permitting streamlining done and is now able to deliver to those communities that are being hit most hard by COVID-19. There’s a number of steps and a number of points of light ahead and I really look forward to evaluating your legislation in the days ahead.”
“We would also be really interested in your legislation,” said Shirley Bloomfield, Chief Executive Officer of the NTCA- The Rural Broadband Association. “There are so many different needs that we have…in order to bridge these divides.”
“I think that Tribal lands have long been overlooked,” said Steven Berry, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Competitive Carriers Association. “I think some of those lessons that we’re learning now…should be explored as we move from relief to a more normal process. We would greatly appreciate the opportunity to work with you on your legislation and I think it’s a very much-needed initiative.”
“Senator Udall, we fully support your legislation,” said Gene Kimmelman, Senior Advisor of Public Knowledge. “We think that it’s critical, we appreciate your leadership, along with Senator Cantwell’s, in highlighting this important inequity. I believe that we should be immediately be pushing the FCC to use its Lifeline program and E-Rate program to make more resources available for Tribal lands.”
In addition to introducing the Bridging the Tribal Digital Divide Act of 2020, Udall has pushed for dedicated funding for Distance Learning and Telemedicine in the Coronavirus Aid, Response, and Economic Security Act that passed Congress in March, helping to secure $25 million. The Navajo Nation was recently awarded nearly $1 million from this funding. Udall also fought to expand fudning for the FCC’s Re-Connect program by $100 million in the CARES Act. The Pueblo of Acoma and 16 counties in New Mexico have received a total of $23 million from this funding to connect over 2,200 households with broadband internet.
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