Merkley, Wyden, Colleagues Introduce Legislation to Expand Tribal Broadband Application Deadline

Washington, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, along with 11 of their Senate colleagues, have introduced a bill to expand the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) 2.5 GHz Rural Tribal Priority Window to allow Tribal Nations and Native Hawaiian organizations the time they need to apply for spectrum licenses for unassigned spectrum over their own lands—a critical step to expanding broadband access in their communities.   

In 2019, The FCC created the 2.5 GHz Rural Tribal Priority Window to provide Tribal Nations and Native Hawaiian organizations an opportunity to apply for spectrum licenses over their land. However, the Window expired in September before many Tribal Nations and Native Hawaiian organizations were able to apply—in some cases due to the COVID-19 pandemic—and the FCC declined to extend the deadline any further, in opposition to multiple requests made by Tribal Nations, Native Hawaiian organizations, telecommunications groups, and bipartisan Senate and House lawmakers. The Extending Broadband Tribal Priority Act of 2020 will require the FCC to open a new 2.5 GHz Rural Tribal Priority Window that lasts at least 180 days, to commence no later than 30 days after the bill is enacted. This bill will give Tribal Nations and Native Hawaiian organizations an adequate amount of time to apply for spectrum licenses to deploy much-needed internet services on their lands. 

“From patients engaging in telehealth visits, to students studying remotely, and employees working from home, high-quality broadband access has never been so vital to maintaining our public health, education, and economy. But millions of people, many of whom are members of rural tribal communities, still don’t have access to reliable broadband service,” said Senator Merkley. “The federal government has a long road ahead when it comes to addressing its extensive record of condemnable actions against Native peoples, and that road must include making sure that every tribal community has the tools, like broadband, that they need to stay healthy and thrive.”

“Tribal communities in Oregon and nationwide desperately need quality wireless broadband access to keep on top of health care, school and remote work during the COVID-19 crisis. This legislation will ensure Tribes won’t be blocked from claiming spectrum over their lands just because that same pandemic has made it harder to submit applications to the FCC,” said Senator Wyden.

Today, the United States scores above the world average for connection rates to fixed broadband services for Americans living off Tribal lands at 92 percent, but only 65 percent of native Americans living on Tribal lands have access to these wireless services. This leaves approximately 1.5 million people on reservations without access to basic wireless services. Because Tribal Nations and Native Hawaiian organizations cannot access spectrum rights to deploy broadband and telephone networks over their Tribal lands, in some of the most geographically isolated areas in the country, Native Americans continue to suffer from lack of access to life-saving digital services, and broadband access that we take for granted and further placing them behind in the digital divide.

The Extending Tribal Broadband Priority Act of 2020 would do the following:

  • Establish a new 2.5 GHz Rural Tribal Priority Window that lasts at least 180 days;
  • Require that the FCC open this new window no later than 30 days after the bill is enacted; and
  • Create additional time for Indian Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations to apply for unassigned spectrum licenses over Tribal lands to deploy internet services

The bill has broad support, including the National Consumer Law Center, on behalf of its low-income clients; New America’s Open Technology Institute; Public Knowledge; Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition; National Hispanic Media Coalition; Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe; Access Now; National Indian Education Association (NIEA); Native American Finance Officers Association (NAFOA); Center for Rural Strategies; USET Sovereignty Protection Fund; National Congress of American Indians; Pueblo of Jemez; and AMERIND Critical Infrastructure.

In addition to Merkley and Wyden, the legislation is co-sponsored by Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Tina Smith (D-MN), Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI), Tom Udall (D-NM), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), and Angus King (I-ME) in the U.S. Senate, and by Representatives Deb Haaland (D-NM-1), Angie Craig (D-MN-2), Kendra Horn (D-OK-5), Don Young (R-AL-At Large), Ruben Gallego (D-AZ-7), and Tom Cole (R-OK-4) in the U.S. House of Representatives.