While Indigenous communities across the US battle some of the most brutal COVID-19 mortality rates in the country, they’ve simultaneously raced against the clock to take advantage of a once-in-a-generation opportunity to access and manage their own broadband.
The Tribal Priority Window is an unprecedented opportunity for eligible US Tribes to apply for 2.5GHz spectrum leases ahead of the federal auction. Targeted at the most digitally underserved communities in the US— where only half of housing units have access to broadband— the Window is intended to enable rural Tribes access to Internet service and the development of services to narrow the digital divide. The application process posed significant challenges to Tribes who already struggle with poor connectivity. The digital format, coupled with COVID-19 realities, has hampered their ability to file applications within the deadline.
Due to the insurmountable obstacles posed by the pandemic, Tribes and nearly 100 organizations have called on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Congress to extend the Tribal Priority Window by 180 days.
In response, the FCC has granted them just 30 additional days to file their applications. In its order, the FCC says that this extension is due to the unusual challenges presented by the pandemic. However, the pandemic is expected to worsen in the next month, not improve.
This extension only gives the portion of Tribes already engaged in the process some extra time to wrap up applications. It does not provide nearly enough time to boost overall awareness and enrollment. The spread of COVID-19 has not slowed, and Tribes continue to battle high infection and mortality rates. Tribes that have not previously engaged in the Tribal Priority Window will continue to encounter immense barriers to collect all the materials necessary, pass Tribal resolutions, engage their community, and submit applications within the new 30-day window.
As Public Knowledge writes in a recent statement, the FCC’s order cites T-Mobile’s comments that suggest that an extension would be necessary. T-Mobile called for a 90-day extension. Even the Window’s critics recognized that a 30-day extension is not enough time for Tribes to take advantage of the unprecedented opportunity for urgently-needed access to broadband.
So many crucial aspects of Tribal life directly and immediately depend on their communities’ ability to apply for spectrum licenses within the Tribal Priority Window. The initiative will allow Tribes the ability to connect their homes, workplaces, hospitals and schools. Tribal students’ educations and futures currently depend on reliable connectivity, and so does the functionality of life-saving telehealth services. Broadband access and stewardship is a necessity for the future of Tribal life. Tribal communities are long overdue the opportunity to access what is now an indisputable and vital public resource.
Granting Tribes only 30 days to apply for the Tribal Priority Window will leave Tribes that have not been previously engaged in these conversations struggling to connect, and — in a COVID-19 world — struggling to carry out crucial functions of daily life.
At the Internet Society, we believe that the Internet is for everyone. By working alongside Tribal communities in recent weeks, we have been able to spread the word with our partners to many of the 574 federally-recognized Tribes — over 100 of which have successfully submitted applications. We will continue our commitment to making the Internet available to all by pushing for tribal access and empowering communities with networking solutions to fit their needs.
For more information on the Tribal Priority Window and how to apply, visit our site: https://dev.internetsociety.org/indigenet/tribal-priority-window/
And to get engaged in these important conversations, learn more about how to use your license if granted, and build relationships with other Indigenous advocates and community networkers, join us at the Indigenous Connectivity Summit from October 5 – 9 or join a pre-Summit training. Learn more here: https://dev.internetsociety.org/events/indigenous-connectivity-summit/2020/
Image credit: © 2019 Elyse Butler. The photo is from a Community Network training program with Nation of Hawaii as part of 2019 Indigenous Connectivity Summit, leading to the build of Hawaii’s first community network in Pu’uhonua o Waimānalo.