Monday, November 28, 2022
The digital divide on Tribal lands includes broadband access, adoption, and application. On June 22, 2022, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released an assessment of federal efforts to increase Tribal broadband internet connectivity in the U.S. In the report, the GAO observed that connectivity in Tribal nations still lags behind the United States significantly and that Tribal Nations need more resources to overcome barriers to sustainable broadband access, adoption and application on their lands.
The first big investment to bridge this divide came in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Congress created the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program and provided it with $1 billion in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, signed by President Donald Trump in December 2020. But Congress soon realized the digital divide on Tribal Lands could not be bridged with just $1 billion.
On June 3, 2021, the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) released a Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) with an application deadline of September 1, 2021. The grant funds could be used for:
(A) Broadband infrastructure deployment projects, including support for the establishment of carrier-neutral submarine cable landing stations; and
(B) Projects that promote the adoption and use of broadband services, including:
(i) affordable broadband programs, such as providing free or reduced-cost broadband
service and preventing disconnection of existing broadband service;
(ii) distance learning;
(iv) digital inclusion efforts; and
(v) broadband adoption activities.
One week after the September deadline, NTIA announced that it had received over 280 applications for over $5 billion in funding from Tribal entities. Because of the immense need expressed by program applicants, Congress added $2 billion for the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and made some program enhancements that allow grantees more time to deploy broadband networks and help more people get online.
Grantees now have 18 months to commit funds to an approved project, instead of the original six. They also have four years to expend all grant funding, instead of one, and any unused funds from the program are to be put towards other Tribal broadband projects rather than reverting back to the U.S. Treasury.
NTIA is awarding Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program grants on a rolling basis. The NTIA announced the first three awards on November 16, 2021. The program has since awarded $1.5 billion to 112 Tribal entities in 11 different states across the U.S.—Alaska, Arizona, California, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, New York, South Dakota, and Virginia. Some of the many program awards include:
Hoopa Valley Tribe, California: The $65,140,407 broadband infrastructure deployment project will further efforts to install fiber and wireless networks to directly connect over 1,000 unserved households, 64 businesses, and 19 community anchor institutions with fiber-to-the-home broadband. The Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program mandates that projects provide of at least 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload speeds. The project will also help construct a Tribal data center, install a tower, and provide workforce development training. The project intends to benefit unserved Native American households, Tribal businesses, Tribal community anchor institutions, Tribal members that participate in workforce development training, and all Hoopa Valley members that utilize Tribal services. Visit here to read about how Hoopa Valley has been working to close its digital divide.
Santa Fe Indian School Pueblo Education Network, New Mexico: The $57,298,683 broadband infrastructure deployment project aims to install fiber connecting the 700 students in grades 7-12 from the 19 Pueblos, Navajo and Apache Tribes of New Mexico, Zuni Tribe, Pueblo of Acoma, Pueblo of Isleta, Pueblo of Jemez, Pueblo of Santo Domingo, and the Pueblo of Zia with fiber-to-the-home 1 Gbps/1 Gbps service. Through this project, the school network will connect multiple rural Tribal lands in New Mexico cost-effectively and increase Tribal participation in the global digital economy. Creating a private education network connecting Tribal Pre-K-20 schools and libraries to each other and to national research and education networks will increase enrollment in online classes and increase educational attainment, including increasing the pursuit of post-secondary degrees.
Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Montana: The $41,572,831 broadband infrastructure deployment project will install fiber and wireless to directly connect 927 unserved Tribal households, 36 unserved Tribal businesses, and 22 unserved Tribal community anchor institutions with a minimum of 30 Mbps/5 Mbps and up to 1 Gbps qualifying broadband service. The project will open opportunities for telehealth care services, online educational opportunities, workforce development, telecommuting, and digital and financial literacy. It will also establish a CSKT Tribe-owned broadband Internet service accessible to all Native households, businesses, and anchor institutions on the Reservation. The project will help to remove the affordability barrier and be 100 percent carrier-neutral.
Alaska Federation of Natives Broadband Use and Adoption Consortium, Alaska: This $35,102,141 broadband use and adoption project consists of a consortium consisting of 73 Alaska Native Tribal governments, Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs), and Tribal organizations to reduce barriers to broadband usage among Native Alaskans by providing broadband-enabled devices, subsidizing broadband service, and implementing digital skills and workforce training. It will also seek to improve healthcare access among Tribal communities by equipping Alaska Tribal health partners with the equipment and training needed to offer telehealth services. This project will serve 62 Alaskan Native communities or ANCs, provide subsidized Internet service for an estimated 2,777 Alaskan Native households, provide broadband devices to an estimated 8,877 individuals, and employ and train 10 IT technicians.
Suquamish Tribe of the Port Madison Reservation, Washington: The $1,093,384 broadband use and adoption project will improve community anchor institutions’ digital readiness and the development of workforce training and digital literacy programs aimed to increase digital inclusion among Tribal members. The implementation of this project will enable broadband adoption activities, including telehealth, distance learning, affordable broadband programs, workforce development, and digital inclusion efforts. Through this, the project expects to improve broadband access and service for all 6,536 Port Madison Indian Reservation residents. Tribal youth will gain digital literacy and workforce development skills while Tribal households will gain better access to telehealth services, distance learning, and workforce development programs.
The full list of Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program awardees can be found here.
The NTIA also administers the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program, a $268 million grant program to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), and Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) for the purchase of broadband internet access service and eligible equipment or to hire and train information technology personnel. Established by the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, the pilot program is distributing grants to facilitate educational instruction, including remote instruction. Applications for the pilot program were received in 2021. NTIA announced awardees in July and October 2022. Grants were made to:
Dine College’s CONNECT NAVAJO project aims to improve educational and economic opportunity on the Navajo Nation by improving internet access, providing more hardware, and investing in IT staff. This project will ensure that the Diné people can continue to reside in their homes on Navajo Nation and benefit from access to technology that helps them earn academic credentials and enter economically rewarding and personally fulfilling careers.
Through the Student Success and Increasing Minority Workforce Participation Program, Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology (OSUIT) aims to be a proactive participant within its community to decrease the digital divide and enhance access to broadband services as well as increase the talent pipeline for Oklahoma’s telecommunications industry. It will address two critical issues being faced by Oklahoma’s rural communities: (1) The availability of broadband services in Oklahoma’s low-income communities, and 2) A lack of skilled workers and high-quality training programs available for Fiber Technicians in Oklahoma’s low-income, rural communities.
The Tohono O’odham Community College (TOCC) Hewel Wepegi Macidag kc, wog – ‘Learning the Internet Road’ is designed to directly address the lack of broadband access, connectivity, adoption and equity at the college and in the surrounding anchor communities on Tohono O’odham Nation (TON). The overarching goal of the program is to support economic development on the Tohono O’odham Nation through digital workforce development, community connectivity improvement, and computer literacy enhancement.
The Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program works in tandem with other federal programs to streamline application processes and maximize the potential for Tribal Governments to receive broadband funding. The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 appropriated $10 billion to the Treasury Department to establish the Capital Projects Fund to provide funding to states, territories, and Tribal Governments to carry out critical capital projects directly enabling work, education, and health monitoring, including remote options, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As broadband internet connectivity can be an essential element of these efforts, the Capital Projects Fund allows for investment in high-quality broadband as well as other connectivity infrastructure, devices, and equipment, among other things. The Capital Projects Fund for Tribal Governments will deliver $100 million in funding to Tribal Governments.
NTIA has coordinated with Treasury to allow Tribal Governments to indicate their interest in receiving funding under the Capital Projects Fund. By providing a statement authorizing NTIA to share with Treasury the complete application packages that they submit for NTIA’s Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, Tribal Governments can be considered for funding under the Treasury program.
Tribal governments have each been allocated about $167,500 in Capital Projects Fund support. They submitted a request for funding to the Treasury Department by October 14, 2022. Treasury is now reviewing and approving Tribal Government projects and has already made funds available for many eligible investments. Some of the Capital Projects Fund awards include:
Nansemond Indian Nation, Virginia: This project involves the purchase of equipment to extend public Wi-Fi access. Currently, on a 70-acre property, there is only broadband access at the central buildings; this project will allow Tribal members to connect from anywhere on the property.
Tonkawa Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma: The Tonkawa Tribe’s project will purchase routers and other equipment to connect 100 homes to the internet.
Winnemucca Indian Colony of Nevada: The funding will be used to support the development of a multi-use center that will provide public computers and internet access, including private spaces for telehealth visits.
Big Pine Paiute Tribe of the Owens Valley, California: Funds will be used to improve a multipurpose community facility and purchase computers and other equipment to enhance high-speed internet access for the community.
Catawba Indian Nation, South Carolina: This award will assist in the development of the Catawba Nation Community Center, a multi-purpose facility to accommodate critical needs and provide critical services, including remote services.
The full list of Capital Projects Fund awards for Tribal governments can be found here.
The Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program offers a monthly discount for broadband service provided to low-income people living on Tribal Lands. Qualifying households on Tribal lands can receive a $75 per month discount on their broadband internet subscription as well as a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet from participating providers.
The FCC also has an initiative under its Schools and Libraries (E-Rate) Program which specifically helps Tribal Libraries apply to and receive E-Rate support. The E-Rate Program, part of the Universal Service Fund administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), helps eligible schools and libraries apply for discounts on services such as internet access, telecommunications services, and related equipment.
To help Tribal libraries that are new to the E-Rate program, the Tribal Libraries Pilot Program will provide one-on-one assistance in all aspects of preparing, applying, and receiving E-Rate support during the upcoming funding year. The Tribal Libraries Pilot Program seeks to gain an understanding of the applicant experience to increase participation and streamline the E-Rate program requirements, particularly for Tribal applicants. The goal of this program is to learn what training and support is most useful to new Tribal library applicants to enhance E-Rate training materials and training programs and ways to simplify the program.
The E-Rate Tribal Libraries Pilot Program is open to Tribal libraries that are new to the E-Rate program or had challenges applying to the E-Rate program in the past and were unsuccessful. Tribal libraries must be able to demonstrate that they have three basic characteristics of a library, including:
Tribal government entities can designate a library as a Tribal library (for example, through a Tribal Resolution). Tribal libraries may also work with the state library administrative agency where they are located. Tribal college libraries are ineligible for E-Rate support.
The application window for the E-Rate Tribal Libraries Pilot Program has closed. USAC and the FCC will contact libraries that applied for the pilot with next steps by December 1, 2022.
The US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) ReConnect Program provides federal loans and grants to facilitate broadband deployment in rural areas. This includes funds for the costs of construction, improvement, or acquisition of facilities and equipment needed to provide broadband service in eligible rural areas. Many Tribes benefit from ReConnect Program funding as they continue their broadband infrastructure buildouts.The ReConnect Program, administered under USDA’s Rural Development agency, was established as a pilot program in 2018 and was codified in 2021. To date, USDA has announced a total of $3,123,323,181 invested through the ReConnect Program’s first three funding rounds. The fourth round of the ReConnect Program uses funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Applications for the fourth round were due by November 2, 2022. USDA maintains certain guidelines specific to Tribal participation in the ReConnect Program in order to ensure equitable funding on Tribal lands and in Indigenous communities. These include:
Eligible Alaska Native Corporations, Tribal Governments, Colonias, persistent poverty areas, and socially vulnerable communities can receive 100 percent grant funding from the ReConnect Program, rather than grant/loan combinations or loan options. Grants for these entities are $35 million at maximum and $100,000 at minimum, with no matching fund requirement. Up to $350 million is available for these grants in the upcoming fourth round of ReConnect awards. All awardees must ensure their service providers participate in the Affordable Connectivity Program.
The Osage Nation, based in Oklahoma, recently received a ReConnect grant of $13.9 million for the construction of a fiber-to-the-home network capability, offering 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) symmetrical broadband speeds. The grant was awarded on August 30, 2022, just days after the Osage Nation was awarded a $40.6 million Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program grant on August 16. Osage Nation Grants Management Director Christa Unap-Fulkerson said of the grants, “What an exciting addition to the Nation’s broadband initiatives. This means more Osages will have access to high-speed connections to help support health outcomes, educational endeavors, and local economic growth to say the least. This is a profound opportunity to lift our people and take us into the future innovatively and competitively.”
USDA awards funding to Tribal nations for broadband connectivity through a number of its programs, including:
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