Federal Programs to Address Broadband Access, Affordability on Tribal Lands

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

Reconnect Program

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.

The USDA is expected to announce a third round of ReConnect Program funding for 2021, and the application window is expected to open soon.

TBCP funding can be used for broadband infrastructure deployment or affordable broadband programs, including:

  • Free or reduced-cost broadband service
  • Services to prevent disconnection of existing broadband service
  • Distance learning
  • Telehealth
  • Digital inclusion efforts
  • Broadband adoption activities

TBCP Application Process

Throughout February 2021, the NTIA held a series of virtual Tribal consultation sessions to assist in developing the application process for the program, which hasn’t yet been released but is expected soon. Learn more about the TBCP application process on the NTIA’s broadband grant webcast.

Broadband Affordability Programs

There are also programs available to Tribal members that address the affordability of broadband. 

Lifeline and Link-Up

Established in 1985, the FCC’s Lifeline and Link-Up program provides a monthly discount on voice or broadband services as well as a one-time discount on installation charges. These discounts include:

  • $9.25 monthly discount
  • An additional $25 monthly discount for residents on Tribal lands
  • Up to $100 off installation charges
How to Qualify for Lifeline and Linkup

Residents living on Tribal lands can qualify for Lifeline and Link-Up through income-based qualification, which requires they make 135% of the federal poverty guidelines or less. They can also qualify through participating in any of the following programs:

  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
  • Medicaid
  • Supplemental Security Income
  • Federal Public Housing Assistance
  • Veterans Pension and Survivors Benefit
  • Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance
  • Head Start
  • Tribal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families
  • Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations

Lifeline and Link-Up discounts are limited to one per household, not per person. In addition, many states have Lifeline and Link-Up programs that may provide additional discounts for qualifying households and services.

Voice and broadband providers must also be eligible to receive Federal Universal Service Funds for their customers to qualify for this program. A consulting professional can help providers navigate the designation and customer-eligibility processes.

Emergency Broadband Benefit Program

The Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program is a newer resource that’s also currently in effect. It was enacted by Congress in 2021 as part of the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2021 and administered by the FCC.

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.

The EBB program is designed to make broadband more affordable for low-income households, including those on Tribal lands, during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The EBB provides:

  • Monthly discounts of up to $50 for non-Tribal qualifying households
  • Monthly discounts of up to $75 for Tribal qualifying households
  • A $100 one-time discount for a broadband-connected device, such as a laptop, PC, or tablet

These discounts are in addition to Lifeline and Link-Up discounts for households that qualify for both programs.

Available EBB Funds

The EBB currently has $3.2 billion in available funding, and an additional $6 billion in funding is pending. This program will last until funding is exhausted or six months after the Department of Health and Human Services’ determination that the COVID-19-related public health emergency has ended—whichever comes sooner.

How to Qualify for the EBB

Households can qualify for the EBB in a variety of ways, including participating in any of the following programs:

  • Federal Lifeline and Link-Up program
  • Free or reduced school lunch or breakfast program benefits under federal guidelines
  • Low-income or COVID-19 program through a participating provider, subject to FCC approval

Households can also qualify if a household member meets either of the following requirements, as long as the total household income is less than $98,000 for single filers and $198,000 for joint filers:

  • Documented substantial loss in income since February 29, 2020
  • Received a Federal Pell Grant in the current award year

Participating in the EBB is voluntary for broadband providers, so customers will first need to determine if their broadband provider is participating—and then assess their eligibility.

EBB discounts are limited to one discount per household.

Application Period

Broadband provider participation and customer enrollment in the program are now open. A consulting professional can offer more detail about how broadband providers can participate in the program.  

American Rescue Plan Act

The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) includes additional aid programs, such as the State and Local Government Fiscal Recovery Fund and the Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund. These programs allow funds to be used for investments in infrastructure and capital projects, including broadband. 

Indian Health Service funding provided under the ARPA also sets aside funds for information technology and telehealth infrastructure. Guidance for these programs hasn’t yet been issued, but it appears there will be additional funding opportunities to supplement Tribes’ ongoing investments in broadband infrastructure.

We’re Here to Help

In today’s online-centric world, these broadband programs are intended to help bridge the digital divide for Tribal citizens who are at the greatest risk of falling further behind due to lack of access and affordability. 

We’re closely following the application processes for the SUTA, TBCP, and other beneficial programs for Tribal households. Stay tuned for updates and additional insights for service providers and Tribes as application processes open.

To learn more about these programs and potential impacts for service providers and Tribal lands, contact your Moss Adams professional.

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