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FCC Targets Low Broadband Adoption by Native Americans

Broadband usage and availability among Native Americans continues to lag far behind the U.S. as a whole.

The FCC is taking further steps to improve communication services in Native American tribal communities, some of which have no access to Internet, phone or radio services.

The commission took testimony on Thursday, March 3, from tribal leaders and FCC officials, and discussed options to help tribes across the nation get these vital methods of communication.

The FCC’s plan includes helping Native American nations deploy rural radio service; a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on ways to expand the efficient use of spectrum over tribal lands to improve access to mobile wireless communications; and a Notice of Inquiry on improving communications services, will lay the groundwork for various communications policies.

The FCC also declared a need for a uniform definition of tribal lands, including small or irregularly shaped lands, to be used agencywide in rulemakings. The commission also recognized the importance of strengthening the nation-to-nation consultation process with tribes.

When it comes to technology, Native American tribes could be the most underserved group of Americans in the country, with only 68 percent having access to telephones and less than 10 percent to broadband. According to the FCC, the actual percentage, based on anecdotal evidence, may be even lower, at just 5 to 8 percent. By comparison, approximately 65 percent of all Americans use broadband.

One more complicating factor: As a group, Native American populations and their lands are fragmented: “There are 4.1 million American Indians and Alaska Natives in the United States and more than 565 federally recognized tribes with their own unique political and tribal structures,” according to an FCC estimate.

Consequently writing tribes into the National Broadband Plan has been a main focus for Native American leaders and something on which they have worked hard, said Mark Pruner, president of the Native American Broadband Association, on Thursday. “This is something we have really been working for; it’s wonderful that [the FCC] is doing this,” Pruner said.

The Native American Broadband Association was founded in 2009, immediately after the first stimulus funds for rural broadband were announced. Various rural communities applied for these grants and loans to increase broadband access. The association helped tribes and technology companies partner on these applications. In the first round of funding, a satellite program serving rural Alaskan Native villages received $25 million.  

In the second round of funding last year, many more tribes applied to get funding, said Pruner. “The tribes themselves have been very active in doing it. It’s something that many tribes have worked on,” he said.

Better telecom and broadband would also improve public safety and emergency response on tribal lands, officials said.  

“We know that there have been lives lost in Native America because of the lack of basic communications services,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a prepared statement released Thursday. “We know that in the cold of a recent winter, when a car broke down on a reservation in the North Plains and a signal was not available, two young Indian men froze to death. We know that not too long ago in Arizona Indian Country, when a father and family man had a heart attack, his family had too far to travel just to reach a telephone.”

He continued, “Our actions will further empower native nations to access and use the latest technologies to grow their businesses, increase their access to quality health care and education, reach 911 during emergencies and receive public alerts and warnings.”

The FCC has been focused for the past few years on improving service in tribal lands. Last August, the commission started the Office of Native Affairs and Policy, which is the contact point for collaboration among native tribes and the private- and public-sector entities involved.


Miriam Jones is a former chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.