July 27, 2020

Warren, Haaland Take Historic Step to Affirm Native Nations’ Ownership of Broadband Spectrum on Their Lands

The bill aims to halt policies that extend the “Reservation Era”

Bill Text | One Pager | List of Supporters

Washington, DC - Today, United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Congresswoman Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) announced their historic bill that would affirm Tribal Nations' and Native Hawaiian organizations' ownership of broadband spectrum over their lands to deploy wireless internet services. The Deploying the Internet by Guaranteeing Indian Tribes Autonomy over Licensing (DIGITAL) Reservations Act would affirm Tribal sovereignty to spectrum rights for the first time in United States history by granting Native Nations full permanent access to spectrum licenses over Tribal lands to fulfill true self-governance and self-management of modern natural resources on their lands. The bill comes as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has so far refused to extend the Rural Tribal Priority Window to apply for 2.5GHz spectrum over Tribal lands beyond August 3rd amidst the global pandemic. If passed, this bill would eliminate the FCC's role in selling spectrum rights off Tribal lands without Tribal consent, and create the first Tribal Broadband Fund to immediately deploy life-saving wireless services on Tribal lands.

Although the United States scores above the world average for connection rates to fixed broadband services for Americans living off Tribal lands at 92 percent, only 65 percent of Native Americans living on Tribal lands have access to these wireless services, leaving approximately 1.5 million people on reservations without access to basic wireless services. Because Indian Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations cannot access spectrum rights to deploy broadband and telephone networks over their 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 that can address the missing and murdered Indigenous women crisis and youth suicide, education and employment opportunities, and telehealth services. This situation continues the failed "Reservation Era" policies by creating "digital reservations."

"Wireless broadband access on Tribal lands is worse than just about anywhere else in America, and more than a third of those living on Tribal lands don't have high-speed broadband at all," Senator Warren said. "Without it, Native communities are shut out of a 21st-century economy and have limited access to life-saving services-a crisis that is even more urgent during the COVID-19 pandemic. Congresswoman Haaland's and my bill to recognize Native Nations' ownership of spectrum over their lands affirms their sovereignty and provides a path to desperately needed connectivity."

"Connectivity is key to ensuring Native Americans have access to education resources, telehealth, and public safety, but Native Americans living on reservations have been left behind in the digital divide, and sovereign Native Nations encounter significant barriers to access spectrum rights on their Tribal lands to deploy wireless broadband to their communities. Our DIGITAL Reservations bill will help Tribes fully realize self-governance and protect their sovereign right to manage their own natural resources on Tribal lands and ensure Native communities aren't stuck in the digital divide," said Congresswoman Haaland.

Senator Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) is cosponsoring the bill. "Native communities should have permanent access to available and unlicensed electromagnetic spectrum over their lands-including Hawaiian Home Lands in Hawaii. This legislation would give Native Hawaiian, Alaska Native, and American Indian communities control over these licenses to help expand broadband access, which has become particularly critical in response to the coronavirus pandemic, as schools pursue online instruction and more health care providers offer telehealth options," said Senator Hirono.

The DIGITAL Reservations Act affirms Native Nations' rights to broadband spectrum specifically by:

  • Directing the FCC to allocate to Indian Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations autonomy of spectrum licenses over Tribal lands to deploy wireless broadband and digital services so Tribal members can access critical services like public safety, healthcare, education, employment, voting, the Census, and COVID-19 resources like any person living off Tribal lands.
  • Prohibiting the FCC from selling Tribal spectrum licenses at private auctions to for-profit corporations.
  • Permanently eliminating the public availability of spectrum over Tribal lands.
  • Creating the FCC's first Tribal Broadband Fund so American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians living on Tribal lands have access to wireless digital services and network infrastructure for the first time.
  • Ending failed Federal "Reservation Era" policies of the late 1800s by eliminating the FCC's ability to sell Tribal spectrum resources, or natural resources, to for-profit corporations without Tribal consultation.
  • Strengthening the full realization of Native Nations' inherent self-governance over activities taking place on their lands.

The pandemic has highlighted the impacts that lack of connectivity have in Native communities, with alarming rates of COVID-19 infections and lack of resources to manage the spread of the virus. Sovereign Native Nations, Native organizations, Native-owned businesses, and progressive human rights organizations praised the introduction of the DIGITAL Reservations Act. Both of the federally recognized Tribal Nations in Massachusetts-the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah)-support the bill. A full list of supporting entities is available here.

"Essential to tribal sovereignty and self-determination is Native peoples' fundamental right to control the airwaves over their own lands and provide their tribal community members access to broadband internet. The ACLU of New Mexico fully supports this crucial piece of legislation, which will stop the federal government from prioritizing private industry over Native lives and ensure that tribal communities have access to critical online services such as remote-education and telehealthcare." - Preston Sanchez, Indigenous Justice Attorney, ACLU New Mexico

"While ATNI is acutely aware of the existing broadband disparities in our region, it was magnified to an even further degree with regards to Telehealth and Education amidst the COVID pandemic. Tribal access to the spectrum over their lands is critical to serving the essential needs of our communities." - Leonard Forsman, President, Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians

"No one doubts that sovereigns have spectrum rights over their lands, except when it comes to Tribal lands.  The DIGITAL Reservations Act recognizes that Tribal sovereigns should be accorded an equal status with other sovereigns in this regard.  Indeed, in this modern age, control of spectrum is central to economic self-determination and to public health and safety.  I am deeply appreciative of the work that Congresswoman Haaland and Senator Warren have undertaken to bring this issue and this important legislation forward." - Michael Chavarria, All Pueblo Council of Governors (APCG) Chairman

"AMERIND Critical Infrastructure is proud to endorse this seminal bill to ensure spectrum sovereignty for Indian Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations.  AMERIND Critical Infrastructure strongly believes that this bill represents a critical step forward in finally ensuring that Indian Country controls its own digital future." - Irene Flannery, Director, AMERIND Critical Infrastructure

"Tribal Nations need robust broadband for all the benefits it brings to society, and the COVID-19 pandemic only underscores the myriad challenges Indian Country faces without access to the most important 21st Century--the internet.  AMERIND Risk works with hundreds of Tribal Nations on a daily basis, and we know how critically important it is to see improved wireless and broadband networks in Tribal communities.  The DIGITAL Reservations Act is a bold and important step in the correct direction. It will signpost a change in federal policy that has caused Tribal Nations to languish on the wrong side of the digital inequity.  It will make available the long-warehoused and unused spectrum over Tribal lands and it will bring important new targeted programmatic subsidies to the entities who will actually build out networks--Tribal Nations and their partners.  The importance of these new legislative directives and authorities cannot be overstated.  We applaud the efforts of Representative Haaland and Senator Warren, and we encourage others in Congress who will work with Tribal Nations to bring an end to the decades of hardships endured by those on the other side of the Tribal digital divide." - Geoffrey Blackwell, Chief Strategy Officer and General Counsel, AMERIND Risk

"The DIGITAL Reservations Act takes a bold step to change the trajectory for Native communities that lack affordable, reliable broadband. Tribal nations have long proven that when they have the opportunity to govern and manage their own resources, tribal communities are stronger, economies more robust and people thrive. We support giving tribes autonomy over spectrum licensing and encourage more dedicated funding for deploying critical infrastructure and improving access for citizens living throughout Indian Country. As this pandemic has proven, the time for change is now." - Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr., Cherokee Nation

"The Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL) supports this bill seeking to expedite immediate deployment of telecommunications services for critical services, including emergencies, natural disasters, public health, safety, and education. With approximately 203,500 acres of lands distributed across 20 distinct homestead regions and 6 islands, DHHL serves and manages nearly 10,000 homestead leases, all of which require some degree of connectivity for the protection of life and property in furtherance of the Federal trust responsibility to Native Hawaiians." - Department of Hawaiian Home Lands

"Communication is the key to information; information is the key to access; access is the first step to equity. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the necessity of electronic communication - for information, research, interaction, work, health, and teaching and learning. We know through our work in education and with communities, particularly with Native communities, that lack of access to information is not only inequitable but also potentially dangerous. While corporations prioritize profits over equity, and the federal government auctions off control of information access on tribal lands, the effect is to sustain both literal and figurative digital reservations. We endorse this bill as a way of ensuring digital sovereignty for Native Nations, and a step toward equity in health, education, and access to critical information." - Ethan Yazzie-Mintz, Executive Director, First Light Education Project

"Indian Country has always needed Broadband services and with the COVID-19 pandemic it intensifies the need in order for Tribes, Tribal Communities and members to communicate and provide services." - OJ Semans Sr., Four Directions Inc.

"The DIGITAL Reservations Act is a bold and comprehensive bill that tackles an issue that often gets lost in broadband policy - connecting the 36% of homes on tribal lands that don't have access to broadband at standard speeds. It is fair and just that Native Indian Tribes' and Native Hawaiian organizations have autonomy over the public airwaves that cover tribal lands and that private entities that currently control those airwaves but have not built broadband networks expeditiously be required to divest their licenses. The COVID-19 pandemic has made plain to the majority of Americans what Native Americans have known for years - one cannot be a full participant in our society, our economy, our culture, our education and our health care system without access to a robust broadband Internet connection.  During these times, access to broadband is literally a public health issue - the inability to work, go to school or speak to a doctor online increases the risk of contracting COVID-19. Native Indian Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations have waited far too long to determine their broadband futures. Thanks to Representative Haaland and Senator Warren, Native Americans will finally be given the opportunity to close the digital divide in their communities." - Gigi Sohn, Distinguished Fellow, Georgetown Law Institute for Technology, Law & Policy/Benton Senior Fellow & Public Advocate

"As a Democracy, the United States must respect Indian nations as prior sovereigns and we have sovereignty over our lands, waters, and air rights.  So as Native Peoples we must protect our Digital Spectrum and Air Rights." - A. Gay Kingman, Executive Director (Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe), Great Plains Tribal Chairmen's Association, Inc.

"The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is excited at this approach to expand broadband on native lands. We support the leadership of Representative Haaland and Senator Warren in restoring authority to tribal and native nations to manage the spectrum over their lands. These areas have been the most neglected in broadband deployment and we believe the best solution is increased authority for local investment and management." - Institute for Local Self-Reliance

"The Inter Tribal Association of Arizona (ITAA) supports Congresswoman Haaland and Senator Warren in their unprecedented efforts to strengthen tribal sovereignty through tribal management of spectrum rights on tribal lands. With the rapid transformation of our economies due to the public health emergency, communications services will be a critical building block for rebounding and expanding economic development on tribal lands now and in the future." - Maria Dadgar, Executive Director, Inter Tribal Association of Arizona

"This legislative mandate is long overdue, Indian Country is tired of being last in line to enter into 21st Century Broadband capacity.  Our economies and future depend on this essential infrastructure to serve our communities." - W. Ron Allen, Chair/CEO, Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe

"This is about indigenous communities being able to communicate among not only ourselves but with the world. Itʻs also about preparing our people for the latest technologies in electronic communications in this age of information." - Duncan K. Seto , KHHCA Board Chairman, Kaumana Hawaiian Homes Community Association

"MAST has and continues to be left behind in all areas of communication, we represent nearly two hundred thousand Natives in our four State area and our schools, children and internet services does not have adequate services! MAST supports The DIGITAL Reservations Act." - Midwest Alliance of Sovereign Tribes (MAST)

"Putting tribal communities in control of spectrum over their own lands is an important step to promoting Tribal sovereignty and self determination. This bill eliminates the right for public sale of spectrum over Tribal lands without consultation, keeping the management of this valuable asset where it belongs-with Tribes." - Allyson Mitchell, General Manager, Mohawk Networks, LLC

"Creation of a Tribal Broadband Fund would provide funding and resources for deployment, adoption, affordability, and access to spectrum. Such a Fund would immediately and directly address the connectivity problems exacerbated by COVID-19." - President Fawn Sharp, National Congress of American Indians (NCAI)

"Educational opportunity for Native students requires equity in access to high-speed internet services and digital learning services. Sovereignty and ownership over broadband rights is central for 21st century tools and resources necessary for Native students to thrive in the classroom and beyond. NIEA looks forward to working with Congress to recognize broadband sovereignty in the DIGITAL Reservations Act." - Diana Cournoyer, Executive Director, National Indian Education Association (NIEA)

"On behalf of the National Indian Gaming Association's Member Tribes, I want to thank Representative Deb Haaland and Senator Elizabeth Warren for introducing the DIGITAL Reservations Act.  For decades our Tribal citizens have had poor access to the latest technology. This Act respects Tribal Sovereignty by granting Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations complete authority to manage their own spectrum rights over Tribal and Hawaiian lands. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the stark lack of internet access on Native land and is negatively impacting virtual health care as an alternative treatment method for our Native citizens. This bill reinforces true self-governance and directly addresses the need for broadband access on Tribal and Hawaiian lands. Once again, thank you to Representative Haaland and Senator Warren for prioritizing tribal sovereignty and self-governance in Congress." - Ernie Stevens, Jr., Chairman, National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA)

"COVID-19 has dramatically increased the need for American Indian and Alaska Native patients to access medical and behavioral health providers through telehealth. While programs like Medicare have temporarily waived telehealth restrictions, Tribes have been unable to take full advantage of these flexibilities because of a lack of broadband and telehealth capacity and infrastructure. So, while mainstream hospital systems have largely made a seamless transition to telehealth, Tribes once again remain behind due to lack of historical investment. The National Indian Health Board supports Congresswoman Haaland and Senator Warren's DIGITAL Reservations Act that would extend Tribal sovereignty over spectrum rights and bring needed connectivity to many rural communities across Indian Country. Tribal access to broadband is long overdue but with significant investment and infrastructure, Elders and relatives with disabilities can have health check-ups without leaving their home and Native youth can access online studies without interruption." - Stacy A. Bohlen, CEO, National Indian Health Board (NIHB)

"Congress can eliminate the digital divide by increasing tribal access to licensed spectrum for the delivery of tribally run internet services. The DIGITAL Reservations Act does more than provide licensed spectrum, it also provides funding for tribes to invest in infrastructure for broadband services, or funding to improve current infrastructure. With this bill, tribes can acquire reliable broadband networks for telehealth, remote education, and teleworking; all of which are essential for preventing the spread of COVID-19." - Dante Desiderio, Executive Director, Native American Finance Officers Association (NAFOA)

"The Navajo Nation applauds efforts to empower Tribes to rapidly deploy broadband spectrum across their own lands. New spectrum resources should be prioritized for Tribes to deploy telecommunications and broadband services to their communities stranded in the grand canyons of the digital divide.  COVID-19 has taught us that broadband is a matter of life and death and carriers should use it or lose it.  Licenses that include Tribal lands should be deployed or partitioned to Tribes. The Navajo Nation looks forward to working with all stakeholders to craft policies that facilitate the deployment of lifesaving broadband that many Americans take for granted." - President Jonathan Nez, Navajo Nation

"The Oglala Sioux Tribe supports the DIGITAL Reservations Act and thanks Congresswoman Haaland and Senator Warren for their efforts to ensure Tribal sovereignty over the increasingly important natural resource of spectrum. The Tribe has never ceded rights to spectrum. The United States has treaty and trust responsibilities to ensure that instead of being sold off to the highest bidder, spectrum is managed by Tribes to meet the critical health, public safety, and educational needs of our peoples." - Thomas Poor Bear, Vice-President, Oglala Lakota Nation.

"Redwire, a tribal corporation, wholly owned by the Otoe-Missouria tribe is in full support of this bill. We have been frustrated in our development goal of bringing broadband services to tribal communities.  We have learned most all frequencies are owned by one of the big corporations. They own or lease the rights to these frequencies  but are not developing service to these tribal or rural Oklahoma communities.  It appears that they are not planning to develop in these communities.  This greatly inhibits the ability to bring internet service to tribal as well rural communities.  So yes this is a needed act. The bill should include a use it or lose it clause for the frequencies already licensed over tribal land. Or even greater to revert back to the tribes automatically. Our stance is these frequencies are a natural resource of the the tribe." - Charles Morris/Tribal Attorney Redwire, Inc (Totally owned business enterprise of the Otoe-Missouria),

"Americans living on Tribal lands and Hawaii Home Lands are some of the least connected to the internet. According to the FCC, 36% of housing units on Tribal lands do not have access to broadband, which makes Tribal communities some of the most under-connected communities in America -- at a time when internet access has never been more important for the health, safety, and economic security of so many Americans. The DIGITAL Reservations Act removes some of the administrative barriers preventing tribes from accessing spectrum to provide wireless broadband services to their people, marking a major step forward in rectifying this issue. The Act also respects the self-governance of Tribal lands and Hawaiian Home Lands. Rep. Deb Haaland and Sen. Elizabeth Warren both deserve considerable praise for their efforts on this issue that is the embodiment of what legislating digital justice looks like." - Bertram Lee, Public Knowledge

"On behalf of the Pueblo of San Felipe, we wholeheartedly support the introduction of Congresswoman Haaland and Senator Warren's DIGITAL Reservations Act. The digital divide is the widest in Indian Country.  This legislation extends tribal sovereignty to spectrum rights by granting tribes like the Pueblo of San Felipe license over our lands, allowing us and all Indian Country to access critical government services like public safety, healthcare, and education and to participate in the 21st-century digital economy." - Governor Anthony Ortiz, Pueblo of San Felipe

"Along with other tribal students, I deserve equal access to high-speed Internet. Due to COVID-19, I have to finish my senior year on-line but it feels like a shadow of school when too many of my classmates cannot join. The Internet is vital for our success and having tribal control over the spectrum above us is as critical as water rights for our future. I support Congresswoman Haaland's bill granting spectrum to tribes so that SFIS seniors can graduate, apply to college and scholarships, and have the same opportunity as students on the other side of the Digital Divide." - Harlan Quintana (Cochiti Pueblo), Student Council President, Santa Fe Indian School

"Santo Domingo Pueblo fully supports Congresswoman Haaland and Senator Warren's bill 'Deploying the Internet by Guaranteeing Indian Tribes Autonomy over Licensing' (DIGITAL) Reservations Act. If passed, this will allow Native American Nation community members access to critical services that non Native Americans may take for granted such as; telehealth services, distance learning capabilities, e-commerce, safety, as well as the infrastructure to work from home during a pandemic and into the future." - Santo Domingo Pueblo

"Tribal authorities have long faced the double-disadvantage of substandard broadband connectivity, and a lack of adequate resources to address these shortcomings for themselves; the DIGITAL Reservations Act greatly enhances Indian Tribes ability to address the digital divides they face, and underscores the long-established, yet weakly enforced, sovereign rights of these nations." - Sascha Meinrath, Director, X-Lab; Palmer Chair in Telecommunications, Penn State University

"SCTCA is very pleased to see multiple new opportunities addressing the lack of broadband and digital inclusion on reservations in Indian Country, we support DIGITAL Reservations Act." - Southern California Tribal Chairmen's Association

"Connectivity to our trust lands has never been more important, we mahalo the sponsors of this bill in recognizing the significance, and self determination of tribes and Hawaiian homestead associations." - Robin Puanani Danner, Chairwoman, Sovereign Council of Hawaiian Homestead Associations (SCHHA)

"The Office of Hawaiian Affairs thanks Congresswoman Haaland and Senator Warren for introducing this bill to protect Native American self-determination rights by reserving control of the spectrum over tribal lands to improve broadband access for Native people, including our beneficiaries on Hawaiian Home Lands. Now, more than ever, it is critical that our Native leaders come together to hold the federal government to its special trust responsibility to all Native Americans. Today, that includes ensuring Native people lead the management and development of resources like spectrum over their own tribal lands." - Sylvia M. Hussey, Ed.D., Chief Executive Officer, Ka Pouhana

"Deploying the Internet by Guaranteeing Indian Tribes Autonomy over Licensing is a sovereign treaty right and right of self-determination and essential supports that can improve education services, supports, and capacity." - Michael Pavel, Owner, Tuwaduq Cultural & Research Institute

"The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing the dangerous and critical gaps in connectivity, that have long existed across Indian Country, caused by decades of federal under-investment and neglect. As Americans turn to broadband to protect communities, maintain our way of life, and adjust to a new normal in response to the pandemic, Tribal Nations are, once again, being left behind, and the disparities we face are compounded. The DIGITAL Reservations Act would ensure that our governments and our people have access to this critical resource, and it would uphold the sovereign right of Tribal Nations to manage the spectrum rights over our own lands." - Chief Kirk Francis, President, United South and Eastern Tribes Sovereignty Protection Fund (USET SPF)

Warren and Haaland have collaborated on 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, and 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. She is also a cosponsor of the 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. In the last Congress, Senator Warren cosponsored the Tribal Connect Act (S. 2205), which would establish a Tribal E-rate pilot program and provide technical assistance to Tribal Nations.