Broadband access on Tribal lands still lags well behind the rest of the United States, including rural areas, according to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Fourteenth Broadband Deployment Report, which was released on January 19, 2021.
As of the end of 2019, 79.1% of households on Tribal lands had access to broadband at speeds of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads (25/3 Mbps). This was compared to 82.7% of rural households and 95.6% of households nationwide.
Additionally, just under 50% of households on Tribal lands had access to broadband speeds of 250/25 Mbps or greater, compared to nearly 87% of households nationwide.
While access to broadband on Tribal lands has grown significantly since 2015, and at a faster pace than both rural and urban areas, it’s clear that the digital divide in the United States remains most prevalent on Tribal lands.
Fortunately, the US Federal Government is instituting a variety of programs designed to help close this digital divide, especially on Tribal lands. These programs will address broadband access and affordability.
US Department of Agriculture Funding
In 2019, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) piloted the ReConnect Program, which made up to $600 million available for loans and grants to extend broadband services in rural areas that lack sufficient access. In 2020, the USDA committed up to $550 million more to this program.
The ReConnect Program supplies loans and grants that help carriers deploy broadband in areas where:
- There are no more than 20,000 residents
- 90% or more of households don’t have access to 10/1 Mbps fixed terrestrial broadband—think fixed wireline or fixed wireless, not mobile wireless or satellite
While this program doesn’t specifically target Tribal lands, many Tribal lands qualify for the funding.
2021 Funds and Application
The USDA is expected to announce a third round of ReConnect Program funding for 2021, and the application window is expected to open soon. Visit the USDA’s ReConnect Program web page for updates.
Funds to Substantially Underserved Trust Areas
The USDA’s Substantially Underserved Trust Areas (SUTA) program can be combined with the ReConnect Program. The SUTA provides special considerations for communities in trust areas that the secretary of agriculture determines have a high need for assistance. These areas generally include Tribal lands.
Key benefits SUTA provides include the following:
- Interest rates as low as 2%
- Waiver of certain documentation requirements
- Waiver of matching fund or credit support requirements
- Extended loan periods
- Higher priority for funding of projects
Voice and Broadband Funding
In addition to these programs, the USDA offers a variety of voice and broadband-funding programs that are available to Tribes and providers serving Tribal lands, such as:
Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program
Late in 2020, Congress passed the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2021, which included the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program (TBCP).
The TBCP is a new $1 billion source of Tribal broadband funding administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to mitigate the effects of COVID-19, which has exacerbated the digital divide across Indian Country.