October 14, 2020

Warren, Haaland Introduce Legislation to Expand Tribal Broadband Application Deadline

The Extending Broadband Tribal Priority Act of 2020 gives Tribal Nations and Native Hawaiian organizations an adequate amount of time to apply for spectrum licenses over their own lands; Bill follows FCC's refusal to implement a sufficient extension, instead giving tribal nations a severely limited application period that expired on September 2, 2020

Text of Bill (PDF) | One Pager (PDF)

Washington, DC - Today, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Congresswoman Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) introduced a bill to expand the Federal Communication Commission's (FCC's) 2.5 GHz Rural Tribal Priority Window. This bill will 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.   

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. 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. 

"Far too many Native communities lack reliable internet access, shutting them out of a 21st-century economy and limiting their access to life-saving services. This crisis is even more urgent during the COVID-19 pandemic. The FCC should have recognized this and extended its last Rural Tribal Priority Window by at least 180 days. But it didn't, so Congresswoman Haaland and I are leading this bill to give Tribal Nations a real chance at increasing their internet access," Senator Warren said.  

"Every community needs access to life-saving telehealth services, education, unemployment benefits, but the FCC consistently denied and restricted Tribes from deploying reliable wireless broadband internet. Throughout the pandemic, the administration has left Tribal communities behind and this is yet another example of their indifference to their needs, which only makes the digital divide worse. Tribes can't afford to wait any longer, so we're introducing a bill that creates a new window for Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations to apply for broadband spectrum, so that they have the ability to focus on combatting this virus and deploy wireless internet access that they desperately need," said Congresswoman Haaland, Co-Chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus.

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 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 from 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; AMERIND; AMERIND Critical Infrastructure; and Southern California Tribal Chairmen's Association.

"Indigenous populations have long had a difficult time gaining access to high-speed internet, and now that the pandemic has made an internet connection necessary for survival, it is even more important to get these populations online. This legislation would help address that issue and give Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations a fighting chance at reducing the digital divide." - Eric Null, U.S. Policy Manager at Access Now

"AMERIND endorses this important legislation for the FCC to establish a new Tribal Priority Window for those Tribal Nations that were unable to acquire a 2.5 GHz license in the prior window.  Tribes need the FCC to work directly with them to provide much needed access to more spectrum and the Extending Tribal Broadband Priority Act of 2020 will accomplish this in 2.5 GHz licensing.  Tribal Nations have been hit hard during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the lack of robust broadband networks has only exacerbated the effects of the long-standing Tribal digital divide on their households, schools, and economies.  Federal legislative efforts that will continue to keep important additional spectrum and broadband infrastructure needs in the forefront are needed throughout Indian Country." - Geoffrey Blackwell, Chief Strategy Officer and General Counsel, AMERIND

"AMERIND Critical Infrastructure supports and endorses the Extending Tribal Broadband Priority Act of 2020, which directs the FCC to open a new Tribal Priority Window for those Tribes unable to apply during the original window.  The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have disproportionately impacted Tribal governments and Tribal communities, and this bill gives Tribes a fair and equal opportunity to apply for this once-in-a-generation opportunity to obtain a spectrum license." - Irene Flannery, Director, AMERIND Critical Infrastructure

"Many tribal nations have found it impossible to meet the previous Tribal Priority Window (TPW) application requirements and deadline due to existing inequities in rural tribal communities, which were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic," said Kevin J. Allis, Chief Executive Officer of the National Congress of American Indians. "The Extending Tribal Broadband Priority Act of 2020 ensures that tribal nations are provided a fair chance to access spectrum rights by establishing a new TPW that gives them the opportunity to apply for unassigned spectrum over their lands and will assist in closing the digital divide within Indian Country. NCAI is grateful to Representative Haaland and Senator Warren for their leadership on this issue and urges Congress to pass this important legislation." - Kevin J. Allis, Chief Executive Officer, National Congress of American Indians

"Senator Warren's and Representative Haaland's bill rights an egregious wrong of the Trump FCC - refusing to extend adequately the tribal priority window for prime 2.5 GHz spectrum.  Despite the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Indian Country, the FCC gave tribal entities an extension of just 30 days - not nearly enough time to prepare and submit an application to the FCC, especially during a pandemic. The bill creates a new tribal priority window, giving tribal entities a longer and just opportunity to gain access to the public airwaves on tribal land necessary for robust Internet access." - Gigi Sohn, Distinguished Fellow, Georgetown Law Institute for Technology, Law & Policy/Benton Senior Fellow & Public Advocate

"Tribes deserve a fair shot at this rare opportunity to expand internet access. They shouldn't have to organize a Day of Action-in the middle of pandemic, no less-simply to get the FCC to pay attention to a request for adequate time. Congress should pass a law to extend the Tribal Priority Window and give Tribes the respect they deserve." - Joshua Stager, Senior Counsel, New America's Open Technology Institute

"Broadband is essential, but Tribes are disproportionately left without the ability to connect. Public Knowledge commends Rep. Haaland and Sen. Warren for their work to help close the digital divide on Tribal lands. The FCC provided this laudable opportunity for Tribes to gain access to spectrum to help address the digital divide, but missed an opportunity to achieve that goal by failing to adequately extend the deadline for applying as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thirty days was not enough. This bill remedies that failure. We look forward to seeing Tribes utilize this spectrum to ensure connectivity for their communities." - Jenna Leventoff, Senior Policy Counsel, Public Knowledge

"Spectrum over tribal lands, as any other resource, should be owned by the tribes to be used as determined & prioritized by them for the direct benefit of their tribal members." - Pueblo of Jemez Department of Education

"The 2.5 GHz spectrum can be transformational for Tribal Nations - particularly those in remote areas that providers do not serve, as we've seen with the Havasupai Nation. We applaud Senator Warren and Congresswoman Haaland for working to create additional opportunities for Tribes to access the spectrum on their lands. Passing the Extending Tribal Broadband Priority Act of 2020 would enable Tribal Nations across the country to deploy, own, and operate their own broadband networks, as is their sovereign right." - John Windhausen, Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition

"Ownership of spectrum plays a critical role for Tribal Nations in the deployment of urgently needed broadband and other mobile communications services on Tribal lands. As our nation becomes ever more dependent upon connectivity, including to combat COVID-19 and to maintain our way of life amid lockdowns, the digital divide between Indian Country and other communities throughout America becomes even more stark. With the FCC refusing to honor its obligations to Indian Country, Congress must step up to ensure all Tribal Nations have the opportunity to access spectrum rights over our sovereign territories. USET SPF supports the Extending the Tribal Broadband Priority Act which would expand access to spectrum ownership across Indian Country." - Chief Kirk Francis, President, USET Sovereignty Protection Fund

This legislation is co-sponsored by Senators 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 Angus King (I-Maine), and Representatives Angie Craig (D-Minn.), Kendra Horn (D-Okla.), Don Young (R-Alaska), Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), and Tom Cole (R-Okla.).

"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."

"The coronavirus pandemic has upended life in our country, making broadband access particularly critical as students are participating in remote learning and people are working from home. The Extending Tribal Broadband Priority Act helps provide rural, indigenous communities additional flexibility to expand access to broadband service," said Senator Hirono

"Native communities should be able to take charge of unassigned spectrum passing through their lands as an exercise of their inherent sovereignty and self-determination," said Senator Udall, vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. "Especially as Tribal communities continue to grapple with COVID-19 response, when broadband service is critical to access telemedicine, online education, and teleworking, they must have the opportunity to adapt to an increasingly broadband-reliant society. I'm proud to cosponsor this bill to extend the expired Tribal priority window for 2.5 GHz spectrum, enhancing Tribes' ability to bridge the digital divide on their own terms."

"We need to expand broadband in Tribal communities because it's the infrastructure of the 21st century," said Senator Smith. "During the pandemic it's especially important for telehealth and distance learning. But unfortunately COVID-19 has not been the great equalizer, and has only contributed to the digital divide. The Extending Tribal Broadband Priority Act of 2020 is a step forward and one of the many things we must do to connect more people to affordable, reliable internet service." 

"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.

"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."

"Access to reliable, high speed broadband is critical to supporting and strengthening our tribal nations in Wisconsin," said Senator Baldwin. "Now more than ever, broadband services are vital to providing and maintaining essential community services, including ensuring members have access to telemedicine, virtual learning, and teleworking capabilities. This legislation is a commonsense fix to help expedite broadband connectivity to rural tribal communities and allow them greater access to these important services."

"Native communities have been among the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic," said Senator Cortez Masto. "About one-third of Nevada's Indian Country households don't have stable or reliable internet access, creating barriers to critical online services like telemedicine, online education and basic communication between tribes. I'm proud to support the Extending Tribal Broadband Priority Act so that Nevada's tribes can use this extra time to participate in this broadband opportunity, and I'll continue to fight for resources that help Nevada's Native communities thrive."

"Broadband disparity issues have affected Tribes for far too long, and COVID-19 only further exacerbates this digital divide. Insufficient broadband access is wide-reaching and can negatively impact Tribal communities' access to health care, education, and job opportunities," said Senator Rosen. "Now, as our nation battles the worst public health and economic crisis in a century, we must do everything in our power to ensure everyone, including Tribes, have the adequate access to broadband they need during these difficult times. My colleagues and I are working to increase Tribal access to internet connectivity so that we can finally bridge the digital divide."

"As technology accelerates, we need to do more to improve broadband connectivity on Tribal land. Our bill will help us quickly expand our broadband infrastructure so that more Native Hawaiian, Alaska Native, and American Indian communities can get online," said Senator Schatz.

"Certainly, it is critical that tribes have the ability to utilize the same technologies available to the rest of rural America, but it is also necessary that we ensure they have enough time to apply for spectrum licenses. This bill will prioritize Indian Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations and extend the window for them to apply for these licenses. By advancing the distribution of affordable broadband service on tribal lands, we can indeed bridge the digital divide and improve tribal economic development and affirm tribal sovereignty," said Congressman Tom Cole, co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus.

"I am proud to join with Representative Haaland and my colleagues to ensure Tribal lands aren't left behind in the growing digital divide, especially amidst the disproportionate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in Indian Country. We must ensure broadband is accessible for all," said Representative Angie Craig.

"Over one-third of Americans living on Tribal lands lack access to broadband services. This is unacceptable in the best of times, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made access to telehealth, virtual schooling, and online economic opportunities a matter of life and death in every community. Now more than ever, we must ensure Tribes have the opportunity to access broadband on their lands. That is why I'm proud to cosponsor - and why Congress must immediately pass - the Extending Tribal Broadband Priority Act of 2020," said Representative Ruben Gallego.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has shined a light on the urgent need for internet access across our state, particularly in our Alaska Native communities," said Congressman Don Young. "Broadband is the key to education, health care, and economic opportunity. The ability to get online should not depend on your ZIP code; we must ensure that Alaska Natives and Indigenous people across our country do not face onerous barriers keeping them from adequate internet access. I am proud to join my friend, Congresswoman Deb Haaland, on the Extending Tribal Broadband Priority Act to ensure that our Native communities have the resources necessary to stay connected and prosper."

In July, Senator Warren and Congresswoman Haaland introduced the Deploying the Internet by Guaranteeing Indian Tribes Autonomy over Licensing (DIGITAL) Reservations Act, a historic bill that would affirm Tribal Nations' and Native Hawaiian organizations' ownership of broadband spectrum over their lands, in order to deploy wireless internet services. The DIGITAL Reservations Act would help fulfill true self-governance and self-management of modern natural resources on their lands.

Warren and Haaland have also collaborated on other efforts to benefit Indian Country and beyond. In response to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights' (USCCR) Broken Promises report, Haaland and Warren released a legislative proposal last year to address chronic underfunding and barriers to sovereignty in Indian Country and hold the federal government accountable for honoring America's legal promises to Native peoples. They coauthored an op-ed in Indian Country Today about the significance of the Broken Promises report, and the need for bold action in response. In May, they coauthored an op-ed in the Washington Post about COVID-19's impact in Indian Country and how it underscores the need for the federal government to take decisive action to empower Native Nations. They also requested that the USCCR update the findings and recommendations of the Broken Promises report in light of the ongoing impacts the coronavirus pandemic is having on Native Nations; the USCCR agreed to that request. The two lawmakers also introduced legislation to revoke the Medal of Honor from the soldiers who perpetrated the Wounded Knee massacre. In addition, the pair authored a bill to establish the first formal commission in United States history to investigate, document, and acknowledge past injustices of the federal government's cultural genocide and assimilation practices through its Indian Boarding School Policy. They also filed a congressional amicus brief opposing the U.S. Department of the Interior's unprecedented action to remove the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe's reservation land from trust status.

Senator Warren believes in equal access to the internet and has worked with Members of Congress to address the digital divide in Indian Country. In May, Senator Warren joined colleagues calling on the FCC to extend its 2.5 GHz Rural Tribal Priority Window, and then did so again in August. In September, she joined a letter to the FCC calling on it to expand broadband connectivity to Native communities affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, including by opening a new Tribal Priority Window. Senator Warren is also a cosponsor of Senator Udall's Bridging the Tribal Digital Divide Act (S. 3264), legislation to hasten the deployment of affordable broadband service on Tribal lands by coordinating and improving the effectiveness of federal resources.