I’m encouraged by the spotlight that the new Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai has placed on the digital divide, this year. It is a divide that continues to impact millions and up to 85% of people living in Indian Country across the United States. While embarking on several in person meetings across the country, Chairman Pai indicated that meeting in person, acknowledging the problem and committing to communication and collaboration to solve the problem was important to him.
Chairman Pai’s remarks this year and policy making reflect a deep understanding that Internet connectivity is necessary to fully participate in today’s digital economy. Not having Internet access means not being able to search job listings, not being able to take advantage of distance learning opportunities, not being able to consult remotely with a doctor when you live hours from the nearest hospital, and not being able to help store memories of your culture online.
Today there are over tribally owned 60 broadcast radio stations and a half dozen telecommunications companies and I feel there should and will be more to come. I believe the time has come that the FCC will build upon the foundation of working with Tribal Nations on telecommunications matters affecting Indian Country. Tribes need to continue to advocate for licensed wireless spectrum allocation for their use and operation on Tribal lands. Tribes also need to allocate internal financing and seek matching outside funding for middle mile (the fiber or wireless connectors or “roadways” to the Reservation and Tribal lands) and last mile (the fiber or wireless connection to the government, businesses and homes) facilities to connect your members.
In the last few months there has been progress on the Mobility Fund II and Connect America Fund programs and next the FCC plans to move forward with the Remote Areas Fund. The primary goal of this Fund will be simple: if there are areas that are still unserved after the two auctions, the FCC will direct additional subsidies to build out broadband in those areas. The new programs will target unserved areas and ensure that service meets the standards needed to deliver digital opportunity. Policy changes are underway to remove some of the regulatory barriers that have sabotaged deployment plans and kept too many Tribal members offline.
As 2017 comes to a close and I reflect on this year I am encouraged by the strong desire to Bridge the Digital Divide in Indian Country. I urge that you not sit on the sidelines and wait for the long processes of auctions, fund allocations and other programs. You should engage in the process with the FCC but you also need take bold steps to improve the broadband capabilities and economic conditions for your members and the generations to come.
This editorial was written for and published in the Tribal Business Journal, December 2017 issue.