Skip to content

October 19, 2020

King Cosponsors “Critical Step” Bipartisan Bill to Expand Broadband Access to Underserved Tribal Communities

WASHINGTON, DC - U.S. Senator Angus King (I-Maine), co-chair of the Senate Broadband Caucus, has cosponsored a bipartisan and bicameral bill to extend the time window given to Tribal Nations and Native Hawaiian organization are given during the pandemic to apply for spectrum licenses – a critical step to expanding broadband access in their communities. Specifically, 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.

"As every Maine person knows, access to broadband is no longer an option but a necessity – made all the more critical during this pandemic where connectivity is serving students, workers, businesses and families," said Senator King. "But across the nation, tribal communities are among the least connected populations – creating a digital divide that is only growing wider as coronavirus and distance protocols keep us responsibly apart from one another.  Almost all of today's vital functions depend entirely on the strength of connectivity, and that's why I've joined my colleagues on this bill which will help tribal communities bridge the digital divide and work to ensure more residents can stay connected through these difficult times."

"The Passamaquoddy Tribe supports the Extending Tribal Broadband Priority Act of 2020, which will help the ability of Tribal Nations to expand telecommunications access in reliance on tribal infrastructure,” said Chief William Nicholas, Sr. of Indian Township. “One can travel for hours without cell phone service or spend entire days working in the woods on Passamaquoddy lands with no reliable signal to use for emergency phone calls in the event of an accident. This poses a particularly dangerous problem in rural areas that are heavily used for logging, sustenance activities, economic development and seasonal living. All of these activities come with risk, but that risk becomes far more dangerous when conducted in a relative telecommunications desert. The public interest would be well served by enhancing the ability of Tribal Nations, the original stewards of the land, to develop telecommunications networks in their territories."

The FCC created the 2.5 GHz Rural Tribal Priority Window last year 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. Since the beginning of April, the FCC has received numerous requests to extend the 2.5 GHz Rural Tribal Priority Window by no less than 180 days from the original deadline of August 3, 2020. The FCC refused to implement that sufficient extension, instead giving tribes a severely limited 30-day application period that expired on September 2, 2020, contrary to numerous requests by Tribes and bipartisan members of Congress. 

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 – 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

This legislation is cosponsored by Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawaii), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), and Representatives Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), Angie Craig (D-Minn.), Kendra Horn (D-Okla.), Don Young (R-Alaska), Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), and Tom Cole (R-Okla.).

During his time in the Senate, Senator King has been a strong advocate for expanding broadband access as a way to increase connectivity in rural areas – and has raised the issue consistently during the coronavirus pandemic. This bill follows up on an earlier push, where he urged the FCC to extend the 2.5 GHz Rural Tribal Priority Window by 180 days in May, given the challenges and delays associated with the coronavirus. Last month, Senator King introduced the Broadband Reform and Investment to Drive Growth in the Economy (BRIDGE) Act to provide $30 billion in flexible funding to states and $1 billion to tribal governments to competitively award funding to connect unserved and underserved communities, with an emphasis on affordable, gigabit-level internet service to meet communities’ needs for years to come. He called on the seven largest internet service providers (ISPs) to help limit the economic and social disruption caused by COVID-19 and better ensure that learners of all ages are able to meaningfully participate in their education. In May, Senator King cosponsored the Emergency Educational Connections Act to help ensure all K-12 students have adequate home internet connectivity and devices during the coronavirus pandemic. Also that month, Senator King joined a bipartisan group of senators to urged Congressional leadership to include $2 billion in the next coronavirus relief package to help healthcare providers expand telehealth services through improved access to broadband. In April, he joined 35 senators in a letter urging the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to increase reimbursements for telephone-based, or audio-only, telehealth services to equal other audio-visual telehealth and in-person visitation reimbursements.

Next Article » « Previous Article