Bringing Broadband to Tribal Lands

Senators introduce Tribal Connect Act to extend E-Rate access

December 12, 2017

Young patrons at the Ak-Chin Indian Community Library in Maricopa, Arizona, use tablets to code by connecting to library Wi-Fi. (Photo: Jeffrey Stoffer/Ak-Chin Indian Community Library)
Young patrons at the Ak-Chin Indian Community Library in Maricopa, Arizona, use tablets to code by connecting to library Wi-Fi. Photo: Jeffrey Stoffer/Ak-Chin Indian Community Library

Applying for a job, completing a GED, submitting government documents, or doing your homework assignments shouldn’t be a luxury. But these activities are a challenge for the millions of Americans who lack internet access. Without access, students are at a serious disadvantage for research, medical personnel are relegated to inferior and/or slow medical information, and small start-up businesses can’t start. Today, a lack of connection to the internet equals lack of connection to the 21st-century economy.

Access to high-speed broadband is vital to our nation’s economic well-being, and libraries are taking a leading role in providing it. For many underserved communities—particularly in rural areas—libraries provide the only access to broadband. Tribal lands in many states are both rural and underserved. The lack of high-speed broadband means for many tribal residents that their ability to participate in today’s economy is a steep climb and becoming steeper.

Data illustrates just how far behind tribal lands lag in connectivity. A study by the Congressional Research Service found that 41% of Americans living on tribal lands lack access to broadband, compared to 10% of all Americans. The same inequity plays out in tribal libraries, according to a report by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums. While 86% of rural public libraries offer free public Wi-Fi, only 69% of tribal libraries do, and 11% do not offer internet access at all.

The inequity came to the attention of Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.Mex.), who held a broadband listening session with two tribal library consortiums. Eighty percent of people living on rural tribal lands in New Mexico lack access to high-speed internet, according to a 2016 report from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In response, Heinrich and Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) introduced legislation that would increase broadband access for tribal libraries by increasing their access to the FCC’s Schools and Libraries Program, or E-Rate.

The Tribal Connect Act of 2017 would also increase access to E-Rate by:

  • opening E-Rate eligibility to tribal libraries that do not receive assistance from a state library, as currently required by law
  • providing training and technical assistance to Indian tribes to help them implement the E-Rate program
  • requiring the FCC to develop performance goals and measures to track progress on ensuring affordable internet access and telecommunications services to tribes
  • establishing an E-Rate pilot program to allow tribal communities without libraries to designate an “anchor institution,” such as a chapter house, as eligible for E-Rate support.

Upon introducing the bill, Heinrich said, “Connecting more tribes to the E-Rate program will strengthen broadband across rural tribal communities in New Mexico and improve education, boost the economy, and increase public safety and civic engagement.”

Denying tribal communities access to broadband leaves out an important voice in our nation. Using the existing E-Rate program rather than creating a new government platform may be one of the fastest ways to open doors of opportunity for people in tribal communities.