Bill Would Unleash Emergency Access to Broadband Internet in Indian Country

Co-Chairs of the Congressional Native American Caucus, Deb Haaland (New Mexico-01) and Tom Cole (Okla.-04) and U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) on Friday announced the introduction of a bill to unleash emergency access to broadband Internet in Indian Country.

The COVID-19 DISASTER in Indian Country Act will direct the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to grant Indian Tribes emergency special temporary authority of available spectrum on Tribal lands so they can immediately deploy broadband networks on Tribal lands during this pandemic. The bill has more than 200 endorsements from across the country, including more than 100 Tribal and Native Hawaiian communities.

“Every community deserves access to emergency services and economic relief during this crisis, but for decades Indian Country has been left behind creating connectivity barriers that lead to elders not having access to telehealth services, children not being able to login for their lessons, and workers unable to apply for unemployment benefits. That’s why we’re introducing this unprecedented bill that would unleash broadband Internet in Indian Country during this pandemic,” said Congressional Native American Caucus Co-Chair Haaland.

“The federal government’s lack of investment and failure to ensure adequate broadband access in Indian Country created an uneven playing field long before this public health crisis. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Internet access is vital for students to continue their education, connecting patients with telehealth services, and linking individuals with emergency federal assistance and resources. I am proud to lead the COVID-19 DISASTER in Indian Country Act in the Senate, and I will continue to fight for long-term federal investments in broadband infrastructure in Indian Country to ensure all Tribes have access to the Internet,” said U.S. Senator Heinrich.

“Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tribes are in need of access to broadband now more than ever,” said Co-Chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus Cole. “When Indian Country has access to broadband, they have access to better healthcare, education and much more. I am proud to introduce this historic bill.”

The disproportional impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in Indian Country, the need for broadband and other wireless services couldn’t be more apparent. Because Tribes have historically lacked access to spectrum to deploy broadband networks on reservations, 1.5 million people living on Tribal lands have been left without basic access to healthcare, public safety, and educational services. This bill will provide the first opportunity for Tribes to have access to wireless networks over their lands to adequately deploy wireless services for the first time in history. It also designates $300 million for Tribal broadband deployment, repairs, and technical assistance through the USDA to immediately deploy networks.

Specifically, the COVID-19 DISASTER in Indian Country Act will deploy wireless networks in Indian Country by:

  • Granting Tribes emergency temporary authority of available spectrum support wireless networks on Tribal lands
  • Creating new emergency COVID-19 Tribal funding through the USDA’s Community Facility Grant Program:
    • $297,500,00 for immediate deployment of Tribal broadband networks — including repairs to existing damaged infrastructure and backhaul costs; and
    • $3,000,000 for technical assistance and training for immediate Tribal broadband deployment
  • Setting new 10-day FCC timeline to designate emergency spectrum authority within 10 days of receiving request
  • Extending Emergency Special Temporary Authority of spectrum on Tribal lands to operate for at least 6 months

The bill is cosponsored by U.S. Reps. Ed Case (Hawaii-01), Ruben Gallego (Ariz.-07), Derek Kilmer (Wash.-06), Kendra Horn (Okla.-05), Raúl M. Grijalva (Ariz.-03), Betty McCollum (Minn.-04), Ted W. Lieu (Calif.-33), Jared Huffman (Calif.-02), Lucille Roybal-Allard (Calif.-40), Earl Blumenauer (Ore.-03), Pramila Jayapal (Wash.-07) Suzan DelBene (Wash.-01), Darren Soto (Flor.-09). U.S. Senator Heinrich is leading the companion bill in the U.S. Senate.

Tribes, Tribal leaders, Tribal organizations, teachers, students, experts and advocates voiced support for the COVID-19 DISASTER in Indian Country Act. A full list of endorsing organizations is available here.

Congressional Native American Caucus Co-Chairs, Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) and Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma) introduced the “COVID-19 DISASTER in Indian Country Act” directing the FCC to grant Tribes access to spectrum on Tribal lands for immediate, emergency access to broadband deployment.

“Broadband Internet is a fundamental resource for civic engagement, the dissemination of essential knowledge and, in the COVID-19 age, basic education. Yet, the majority of Indigenous people in New Mexico and throughout the nation do not have adequate access to this essential utility. It is imperative that the United States Congress pass this crucial piece of legislation so that American Indian children living on remote Tribal lands are no longer hamstrung by inadequate Internet access, and instead afforded the same economic and educational opportunities that so many other American children enjoy.” – Preston Sanchez, Indigenous Justice Attorney, ACLU of New Mexico

“Alaska Tribal Broadband, 100% Native-owned, has been working with Alaska Tribes to improve our dismal Tribal broadband well before COVID-19. The majority of our 229 federally recognized Tribes and villages are truly at the very bottom of the digital divide. With no broadband capability to support distance learning and now, especially with the pandemic, urgently needed telehealth capability, passage of this bill literally throws us a lifeline and gives us hope and opportunity to close the digital divide gap.” – Craig Fleener, CEO, Alaska Tribal Broadband LLC

“At a time of unprecedented unmooring from our daily lives and traditions, the 20 sovereign Pueblos of New Mexico and Texas are working hard to connect our members to essential goods and services. Our efforts are materially impeded, however, by the lack of reliable and communally accessible broadband. The All Pueblo Council of Governors strongly supports the COVID-19 DISASTER in Indian Country Act as a critical tool in helping Tribal Nations build network capabilities with 100% federal cost share to address this unmet, devastating need. The two lead sponsors, Congresswoman Haaland and Congressman Cole, are rooted in Indian Country and understand our great needs. We are deeply appreciative of their leadership in the House on these issues.” – Michael J. Chavarria, Chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors and Governor of the Pueblo of Santa Clara

“Tribal Nations have been hit hard during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the lack of robust broadband networks has only exacerbated the challenges they face. Tribal families and economies now face the worst effects of the long-standing Tribal digital divide. AMERIND serves hundreds of Tribes, and knows that the much-needed connectivity empowered by this important legislation will be a touchstone in the current relief and future recovery efforts in Tribal communities.” – Geoffrey Blackwell, Chief Strategy Officer and General Counsel, AMERIND

“The COVID-19 Disaster in Indian Country Act will help Tribes obtain the spectrum and funding to stand up emergency networks supporting education, health care, and public safety at this critically important time. As a Tribally owned company located in Indian Country and dedicated to helping Native communities bring an end to their connectivity challenges, AMERIND Critical Infrastructure wholeheartedly endorses this important legislation. It is timely and necessary, and will help Indian Country recover and overcome the many challenges Tribal families and communities face today.” -Irene Flannery, Director, AMERIND Critical Infrastructure

“The Cherokee Nation strongly supports this effort to bridge the digital divide in Indian Country. COVID-19 has only amplified our growing need for reliable access to broadband and wireless services in our most rural communities. In recent months Cherokee Nation Health Services has vastly expanded its use of telemedicine and teledentistry, and Cherokees across the world are consistently engaging online in an effort to stay connected to our community, culture, heritage, and language. Increasing access to broadband is absolutely one of the most important things we can do at this time, and we commend Reps. Cole and Haaland for introducing this legislation.” – Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr., Cherokee Nation

“The Choctaw Nation’s large and expansive territory includes the Kiamichi Mountains and other rough terrain which poses unique construction challenges. Broadband access is therefore often limited and even non-existent in many communities. The Nation has made it a priority to invest resources into expanding access across our entire area and we are happy to see Congress wants to provide resources as well.  We are thankful for the leadership of Congressman Cole and Congresswoman Headland on this and many other tribal issues. I would respectfully call on other members of Congress to support this legislation and pass it quickly.” –  Gary Batton, Chief of the Choctaw Nation

“Broadband, high-speed access, and cell reception in the small communities within our Tribal jurisdiction is very poor. There is tremendous need. We are in favor of those communities obtaining any help that is possible.” – Linda Capps, Citizen Potawatomi Nation Vice Chairman, Citizen Potawatomi Nation

“It is not enough to ‘flatten the curve’ in Indian Country. We need to be able to move past crisis mode and return our community to a place where our children can learn, our government can communicate and our people have access to the Internet. COVID-19 did not create the problem of access to the Internet, but with everything moving online, it has exposed just how inadequate the current system is in Indian Country. Funding in this Bill will help Tribes catch up.” – Chairman Harry Pickernell of the Chehalis Tribe

“The Department of Hawaiian Homelands (DHHL) stands in solidarity with Indian Country in supporting the COVID-19 DISASTER in Indian Country Act. With approximately 203,500 acres of lands distributed across 20 distinct homestead regions and 6 Islands, DHHL services and manages nearly 10,000 leases, all of which require some degree of connectivity. Fifteen of the 20  homestead regions have available spectrum for which funding and emergency temporary authority would allow for the deployment of wireless services in largely rural and remote areas with limited resources.” – Chairman William J. Aila Jr., Dept. of Hawaiian Home Lands

“Access to NM broadband and technology should be an essential tool or learning for all NM students during a pandemic like COVID-19, state leaders, please close the digital divide.” – DzilDitl’ooi School of Empowerment, Acion, & Perseverance

“As a long-time member of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Native Nations Communications (Broadband) Task Force, the CEO of a California Tribe off-grid to all telecommunications and electricity, and Executive Council member for my own Alaska Tribe (Central Council Tlingit & Haida Tribes), I support immediate approval and enactment of Congresswoman Haaland and Congressman Coles’ Tribal broadband bill to begin broadband deployment in Indian Country. Telehealth and telemedicine are not tools available to Tribes for COVID-19 response, mitigation and prevention without broadband infrastructure; nor school work at home, employees work at home, Tribal government programs and administration through online portals, a digital-based economy, or public safety and law enforcement communications. Congress must fund and the administration must assist as the duty of our trustee broadband deployment for all Tribes.” -Will Micklin, CEO, Ewiiaapaayp Band of Kumeyaay Indians

“Through our work in education and with communities, particularly with Native communities, we know that individuals and organizations are more effective and efficient when they can work and communicate electronically. The inequities faced by Tribes and Native nations in this area have been highlighted as we all experience the COVID-19 pandemic. We endorse this bill as a step toward digital equity for Native communities, and, as a result, a step toward equity in education, health, and access to critical public information.” – Ethan Yazzie-Mintz, Executive Director, First Light Education Project

“During this unprecedented time, it is a high priority that all of Indian Country have access to adequate broadband and wireless services. We must have the ability to reach our community members with telehealth and educational services, as well as to provide timely updates related to the pandemic and how it impacts our members. The COVID-19 DISASTER in Indian Country Act will provide vital, potentially life-saving aid in this task.” – Chairman Kevin Dupuis Sr. of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa

“We are truly grateful of Representatives Haaland & Cole’s introduction of this bill that will not only help Tribal Nations deal with this pandemic but will allow Tribal members better access to modern technology to participate in the 2020 U.S. Census and in taking part in Elections. They should be commended for their commitment to improving lives throughout Indian Country.” – OJ & Barb Semans Co-Executive Directors, Four Directions Inc.

“It is tragic that a pandemic is the impetus for providing Indian Country with basic amenities. Tribes are on the front lines of fighting the coronavirus and need all the tools available to keep their citizens safe. Broadband service is vital in the Tribes’ fight against this deadly virus.” – Hilary Tompkins, former Solicitor of the U.S. Department of the Interior

“The pandemic has amplified the urgent need to address the significant digital divide that exists on Tribal lands. Without adequate access to broadband and wireless networks, essential services such as online education, telemedicine, technology based business development and the provision of Tribal government services are severely limited and keep Indian Country in a technological lag.” – Maria Dadgar, Executive Director, Inter Tribal Association of Arizona

“The opportunity to have broadband and high speed wireless connections in Jemez Pueblo will dramatically impact short and long term economic and community development initiatives. JCDC’s Board of Directors are in full support of this bill. Thank you Deb Haaland & Tom Cole.” – Charlotte Garcia, President, Jemez Community Development Corporation

“Communication across Indian Country, much of which is very rural and lacks infrastructure, is key to public safety, especially during this pandemic. For example, Mescalero has over 460,000 acres of land — many Tribal members do not have ready access to the Internet or cell phones. This bill will do much to help Mescalero and other Tribes.” – Gabe Aguilar, Tribal President, Mescalero Apache Tribe

“The disparities in healthcare have been significant and persistent for over three decades. The COVID-19 outbreak has caused these disparities to surface in a very serious fashion. As a researcher/clinician I strongly recommend that our congress employ all resources called for by Tribes across this nation immediately. People are dying. Furthermore, our treaty rights clearly state that the U.S. Government has promised to provide necessary healthcare. It is your obligation to live up to your promises.” – Jeff King, PhD, Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma

“Telecommunications access — including broadband — is ‘critical infrastructure’ for Indian Country’s response and recovery to this pandemic. Our ability to ensure Tribal communities have access to telehealth or that our children have the same educational opportunities as others is dependent on the ability of Tribal Nations’ to increase deployment of broadband within their communities.” – Fawn Sharp, President, National Congress of American Indians (NCAI)

“The National Indian Gaming Association thanks Representatives Deb Haaland and Tom Cole for introduction of the COVID-19 DISASTER Act, directing the FCC to grant Tribal Nations emergency access to broadband spectrum. The COVID -19 pandemic exposed the stark lack of Internet access and curtailed tribes and Tribal citizens’ access to education, telemedicine and many other essential online services. With the passage of this act, Tribes would be able to deploy wireless networks and better serve the needs of their citizens. Once again, thank you to our leadership for making our most needy constituents a priority.” – Ernie Stevens, Jr., Chairman, National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA)

“In the past, attempts have been made to remedy the lack of broadband in Indian Country. However, incentivizing commercial entities to work on reservations hasn’t worked. This bill is the best solution to grant Tribes authority over available spectrum for broadband, especially during a national pandemic. This authority is long-overdue for sovereign nations.” – Native American Finance Officers Association (NAFOA)

“COVID-19 is an information centric pandemic. People are dying and suffering physically, emotionally and spiritually across Indian Country. In places where broadband Infrastructure is limited, the suffering is even more pronounced. Native Americans need broadband now.” – Loris Taylor, Native Public Media, Inc.

“Thank you to Representatives Haaland and Cole for introducing the COVID-19 DISASTER in Indian Country Act. Navajo Nation communities are adjusting to the challenges of the ongoing crisis while facing some of the greatest challenges caused by the lack of proper broadband infrastructure. As our workforce, students, businesses, and other citizens continue to work from home it is imperative for us to accelerate our ability to provide reliable broadband services to rural communities. The COVID-19 DISASTER in Indian Country Act will help us build-out infrastructure that will accelerate the bridging of the gap between the broadband spectrum and the end-of-line user. Thank you.” – Jonathan Nez, President of the Navajo Nation

“For too long the digital divide has disenfranchised Native American communities, which have the worst economic, educational, and health outcomes in the U.S. The disparity of Internet access has been brought into clear focus during the current pandemic, with Native Nations largely isolated and digitally disconnected. By immediately deploying broadband and wireless networks in Tribal communities, Native Nations can improve their response efforts, heading off a humanitarian crisis in the making in Indian Country. “ – Chad S. Hamill, Northern Arizona University (NAU)

“The Office of Hawaiian Affairs thanks Congresswoman Haaland and Congressman Cole for introducing this bill to help Native communities access health and education resources via support for broadband services, including our beneficiaries on Hawaiian Home Lands. Now, more than ever, it is critical that our Native leaders come together to hold the federal government to its special trust responsibility to all Native Americans. Today, that includes ensuring reliable internet access on federal trust lands.” – Sylvia M. Hussey, Ed.D., Ka Pouhana, Chief Executive Officer, Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA)

“Citizens of the Oglala Sioux Tribe are being forced to fight the COVID-19 pandemic without broadband Internet — a utility essential to learning and working from home, providing telemedicine, and sharing important public health information. Most citizens of the Oglala Sioux Tribe reside on the Pine Ridge Reservation, which is far removed from high quality health care services and burdened with poor access to telecommunications and Internet service.  Accordingly, the Oglala Sioux Tribe supports, and urges Congress to pass, the COVID-19 DISASTER in Indian Country Act, which will ensure that Tribal governments like ours will have the broadband access necessary to keep our citizens safe and stop the spread of COVID-19.  We thank Congressional Native American Caucus Co-Chairs, Congresswoman Haaland and Congressman Cole for their leadership on this important effort.” – Julian Bear Runner, President of the Oglala Sioux Tribe

“Redwire is Oklahoma’s only Tribal owned ETC and is uniquely equipped to take immediate advantage of grant funds and spectrum proposed in this proposed Act.” – Lester Harragarra, President of Redwire, Otoe Missouria Tribe ETC

“The immediate deployment of broadband and Internet for Tribes will strengthen the health and well-being of those communities. Without this access, adults in families are not able to telework and to support the education of their children.” – Prevention Opportunities, LLC

“The Pueblo of Jemez fully supports the COVID-19 DISASTER in Indian Country Act, to allow our Sovereign Government to determine how best to utilize the spectrum for the current Corona Virus situation and future priorities of the Tribe.” – David M. Toledo, Governor, Pueblo of Jemez

“Since the statewide shut down for the COVID-19 pandemic, our employability skills training program at Pueblo of Jemez for high school students with disabilities has had to stop all operations. Without Internet and cell phone services, we are unable to continue a project that prepares Native American students with disabilities for life after high school.” – Pueblo of Jemez Department of Education

“Our community will greatly benefit from these resources to provide for quality education, healthcare, economic development (including small business entrepreneurship) and emergency operations and communication systems.” – Wilfred Herrera, Jr., Governor, Pueblo of Laguna

“The Pueblo of San Felipe enthusiastically supports the COVID-19 Disaster in Indian Country Act introduced by Congresswoman Deb Haaland and Congressman Tom Cole. This bill directs the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to grant Indian Tribes emergency special temporary authority of available spectrum on Tribal lands. The digital divide is widest in Indian Country and we at the Pueblo of San Felipe experience that divide every single day.  The COVID-19 disaster has illustrated how wide this divide is in Indian Country.  At a time when schools are turning to broadband to continue educating their students, doctors are turning to telemedicine to treat patients, and friends and family are relying on platforms like Zoom to stay in touch and check in on family, Indian Country remains underserved in this capacity to meet the realities of this new world. My hope is that this legislation receives quick and bipartisan action.” – Governor Anthony Ortiz, Pueblo of San Felipe

“In my 30 plus years of providing Native Indigenous historical trauma and resilience trainings and consultation in Indian Country, I have never seen a more disregarded, silenced, neglected and disrespected nation of people who are the original land stewards. This will not correct past and current injustices, but never hurts to start the process.” – Councilman Hunter Genia, Saginaw, Swan Creek and Black River Bands of Chippewa

“Equipping Tribal governments with emergency access to spectrum is an imperative first step in ensuring Tribal governments can meet the most immediate distance learning and healthcare needs of our members during this pandemic.” – Chief Michael Conners of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe and member of FCC’s Native Nations Communication Task Force

“Tribal access to spectrum is not just about access to critical infrastructure, but more importantly about Tribal governments filling in gaps in broadband services in areas where larger telecom entities often leave Indian Country behind. We look forward to working with Congress to enact this legislation.” – Allyson Mitchell, General Manager at Mohawk Networks, a Tribal telecom and IT provider fully owned and operated by the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe

“The San Carlos Apache Tribe fully supports the COVID-19 DISASTER in Indian Country Act. This Act will allow immediate and necessary spectrum to be used on a temporary basis for Tribes to more effectively deal with the COVID 19 pandemic, providing critical broadband connectivity to Tribal members, their homes, and their businesses.” – Terry Rambler, Chairman, San Carlos Apache Tribe

“Our Native American students are negatively impacted due to lack of Internet. They are not able to access the online learning programs that most other students in New Mexico have. This severely affects the learning that could be occurring during this COVID crisis. In addition, because many families also lack home telephones or consistent cell phone service, it is very difficult to keep in touch with parents and help them with distance learning.” – Michael Holland, Teacher, San Diego Riverside Charter School Jemez Pueblo

“Along with other Tribal students, I deserve equal access to high-speed Internet. Due to COVID-19, I have to finish my senior year online but it feels like a shadow of school when too many of my classmates cannot join. The Internet is vital for our success and having Tribal control over the spectrum above us is as critical as water rights for our future. I support Congresswoman Haaland’s bill granting spectrum to Tribes so that SFIS seniors can graduate, apply to college and scholarships, and have the same opportunity as students on the other side of the Digital Divide.” – Harlan Quintana (Cochiti Pueblo), Student Council President, Santa Fe Indian School

“I write on behalf of the Fort Hall Business Council, the governing body of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes (“the Tribes”), in support of the proposed COVID-19 Designation of Immediate Special Authority of Spectrum for Tribes’ Emergency Response in Indian Country Act, or ‘COVID-19 DISASTER in Indian Country Act’. Our reservation is primarily rural and does not have reliable broadband or wireless services due to geographic challenges throughout the Fort Hall Indian Reservation, which has severely limited our ability to provide basic communication to our membership, educational services to our children, telehealth services, and for Tribal governmental services. During this public health crisis, our usual method of emergency management strategies was hampered due to social distancing requirements, limited conference room space, and spotty Internet coverage. I am supportive of the COVID-19 DISASTER in Indian Country Act that would provide needed assistance and resources to effectively respond and manage Tribal health care and governmental needs for our membership and community members.” – Shoshone-Bannock Tribes

“Rural communities and Tribes have always faced a digital divide. This has been highlighted by our current COVID-19 situation. It is time for Tech Equity for our communities.” – Dr. Corrine Sanchez, Tewa Women United

“As Chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, I support the new Tribal broadband bill entitled the ‘COVID-19 Designation of Immediate Special Authority of Spectrum for Tribes’ Emergency Response in Indian Country Act’ or ‘COVID-19 DISASTER in Indian Country Act.’ This legislation will help deploy broadband networks on Tribal lands during this pandemic, and will bring needed broadband access to Indian Country. Tribes have historically lacked access to broadband networks in Indian Country, leaving them without basic access to healthcare, public safety, and educational services. I commend Representatives Cole and Haaland on their efforts and encourage Congress to favorably consider the Bill.” – Chairman Mark N. Fox, Three Affiliated Tribes of the Mandan, Hidatsa & Arikara Nation

READ MORE: Chairman Fox: Oil Crisis Threatens to ‘Knockout’ MHA Nation’s Economy

“Without sufficient Broadband and High Speed Access capabilities, too many Tribal communities find it difficult to offer and provide critical services necessary for children and families to improve the quality of their lives.” – Michael Pavel, Tuwaduq Cultural & Research Institute

“Long overdue support for America’s most underserved citizens.” – Hiram E. Fitzgerald, Michigan State University

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