The FCC has launched several initiatives to expand broadband access on tribal lands. Chairman Ajit Pai was especially excited to tell attendees of the National Tribal Broadband Summit on Monday about one plan to give tribes priority access to spectrum in the 2.5 GHz band, the largest contiguous block of spectrum below 3 GHz in the country.
Today, the 2.5 GHz band isn’t used in most of the West because technological advances have rendered the band’s original intended uses outdated, and arcane rules left it underused. This summer, the agency removed obsolete restrictions on this band, allowing greater flexibility in how the spectrum can be used.
The Commission is giving rural Indian tribes an exclusive window to obtain this spectrum to serve rural tribal lands. “Before any commercial auction of this spectrum, tribes can obtain this spectrum for free,” he said. Pai says this is the first time in the FCC’s history the agency has given tribes a “priority window” to obtain spectrum for wireless broadband.
The FCC has also promoted the expansion of fixed broadband networks on Indian land. Many of the small, legacy carriers that serve tribal communities confront that challenge with financial support from the FCC’s Universal Service Fund. To address the higher costs these rate-of-return carriers typically face, in 2018, the Commission increased the amount of operating expenses these carriers can recover from the fund.
The agency also instituted broader reforms to the subsidies it provides small, traditional carriers. And last month, the FCC authorized a new round of support for rate-of-return carriers, which will ensure fixed broadband is available to over 37,000 locations on tribal lands.
The reforms are having an impact. For example, Golden West, the carrier serving the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, told the Commission its reforms have enabled the company to expand and speed up its fiber deployment. As a result, over 90 percent of the locations on the Pine Ridge Reservation will be connected to fiber in the next two to three years, according to the Chairman.
It’s also important to improve communications and engagement with tribes, according to the Chairman. Last December, Pai renewed the Native Nations Communications Task Force. This advisory group includes tribal members and senior Commission staff, and it’s working to help the agency better understand and address the unique challenges of increasing deployment on tribal lands. The Commission is seeking nominations to fill several tribal vacancies on this Task Force. Pai urged those interested to apply before tomorrow’s deadline.
September 24, 2019
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