Merkley, Wyden, Colleagues Urge FCC to Ensure Rural Tribal Communities Have Equal Internet Access

Merkley, Wyden, Colleagues Urge FCC to Ensure Rural Tribal Communities Have Equal Internet Access

Senators calling on FCC Chairman Pai to increased mobile coverage in Indian Country in light of coronavirus

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, along with 16 of their Senate colleagues, are calling on Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai to extend the 2.5 GHz Rural Tribal Priority Window by 180 days to August 3, 2020. Extending this deadline would allow tribal governments additional time to secure access to unassigned spectrum over tribal lands suitable for both mobile coverage and broadband services, as Indian Country continues to be ravaged by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact in Indian Country, highlighting the need for broadband and other wireless services. Because tribes have historically lacked access to spectrum to deploy broadband networks on tribal lands, 1.5 million people living in Indian Country have been left without basic access to online health, public safety, and educational services.

As communities across the nation continue to face public health response and connectivity issues, the lawmakers in a letter urged the FCC to understand that “these same challenges are also impacting the ability of Tribal governments to participate in FCC proceedings. Additionally, rural tribal communities represent some of the least connected people in America. For example, according to the FCC's most recent Broadband Progress Report, more than 60 percent of residents on New Mexico's tribal lands lack access to high-speed broadband. Furthermore, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the broadband data collected by the FCC overstates service in tribal communities, meaning the number of residents without access is higher than what was reported by the FCC. All of this underscores the need for more comprehensive assistance and engagement on tribal lands.” 

The lawmakers continued, “As you know, this spectrum can deliver significant benefits to rural tribal communities. Tribal governments should not be precluded from having an opportunity to apply for spectrum as a result of this public health emergency. An extension of the 2.5 GHz priority window will help ensure that tribes have adequate time to make the most of this first-of-its-kind opportunity. Accordingly, we urge the FCC to extend the Rural Tribal Priority Window by 180 days and commit to ensuring every rural tribal community has an equitable opportunity to receive spectrum licenses.”

The letter is supported by the National Congress of American Indians.

“This pandemic lays bare the fact that many American Indian and Alaska Native communities lack essential services. Extending the tribal priority filing window and the start date for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund would allow tribal nations to prioritize response and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic without having to risk missing a historic opportunity to bridge the digital divide,” said National Congress of American Indians CEO Kevin Allis. 

In recognition that some of the health and economic challenges caused by the coronavirus fell hardest on tribal communities, Senators Merkley and Wyden have kept the pressure on Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to immediately disburse the critical relief funds that Congress appropriated to assist tribal governments.

Additionally, Senators Merkley and Wyden have consistently advocated for expanded access to broadband service. Previously, the senators introduced the Emergency Educational Connections Act, which would help ensure all K-12 students have adequate home internet connectivity and devices during the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the Continuing Online Networking, Negating Economic Conditions on Technology (CONNECT) At Home Act, which would put a moratorium on internet shut-offs during the pandemic.

Oregon’s U.S. Senators were joined in sending the letter by U.S Senators Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Tom Udall (D-NM), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Angus King (I-ME), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Patty Murray (D-WA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Mazie Hirono (D-HI).

The full text of the letter is available here and follows below.

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Dear Chairman Pai:

In light of the continuing novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and to ensure Indian tribes in rural areas enjoy the same access to the Internet as the rest of the United States, we respectfully request that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) extend the 2.5 GHz Rural Tribal Priority Window opened on February 3, 2020, by 180 days.

As you know, on July 10, 2019, the FCC adopted new rules to bring 2.5 GHz spectrum to auction. The agency established a “priority window” to serve rural tribal lands. In addition, the FCC committed to keeping that window open for 180 days to give tribes time to apply.

As the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. continues to rise and more and more Americans are told to stay home, the true extent of the crisis is becoming more apparent daily. For most Americans, the immediate focus is on the health and safety of our families, our neighbors, and the nation as a whole. To that end, we are pleased to see that the FCC has extended the time for the public to prepare for and participate in some of its upcoming auctions, such as the 3.5 GHz band and the FM broadcast service. This will help ensure that the public has adequate time to participate as we get through this crisis.

These same challenges are also impacting the ability of Tribal governments to participate in FCC proceedings. Additionally, rural tribal communities represent some of the least connected people in America. For example, according to the FCC's most recent Broadband Progress Report, more than 60 percent of residents on New Mexico's tribal lands lack access to high-speed broadband. Furthermore, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the broadband data collected by the FCC overstates service in tribal communities, meaning the number of residents without access is higher than what was reported by the FCC. All of this underscores the need for more comprehensive assistance and engagement on tribal lands. 

As you know, this spectrum can deliver significant benefits to rural tribal communities. Tribal governments should not be precluded from having an opportunity to apply for spectrum as a result of this public health emergency. An extension of the 2.5 GHz priority window will help ensure that tribes have adequate time to make the most of this first-of-its-kind opportunity. Accordingly, we urge the FCC to extend the Rural Tribal Priority Window by 180 days and commit to ensuring every rural tribal community has an equitable opportunity to receive spectrum licenses.

Thank you for your prompt attention to this request.

Sincerely,