FCC Closes Tribal Spectrum Priority Window Despite Objections

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has closed the window for rural Tribes to apply for its first-ever free spectrum licenses, despite urgency expressed from legislators, Tribal Nations and Native organizations that the priority window be extended due to pandemic disruptions.

The FCC previously granted a 30-day extension, beyond the original six-month schedule, to September 2nd for Tribes to apply for licenses to use broadband airwaves on their land. Requests for a longer extension were ignored. “It’s extremely important because in today’s world, even more so now during the pandemic, it’s a virtual world,” said Kevin Allis, CEO of the National Congress of American Indians. “If we can’t have access to the broadband, can’t get access to the internet, (then) finding ways to communicate is extremely difficult.”

More than 400 Tribal entities have applied for the coveted spectrum licenses that have long sat unassigned across rural Tribal territories. 

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement: “Tribes showed tremendous interest in the 2.5 GHz band over the past several months, and I am pleased by the large number of applications the Commission has received. We are now a step closer to enabling Tribal entities to obtain this spectrum for free and quickly put it to use to bring service to rural Tribal lands.” 

FCC staff will begin reviewing the filed applications immediately, and will request additional information from applicants where necessary, seek public comment on the applications, and process applications.   Licenses issued through the Rural Tribal Priority Window will give Tribal entities access to spectrum that they can use to connect consumers living on rural Tribal lands. Any remaining unassigned 2.5 GHz spectrum will be made available by auction to facilitate the rapid deployment of wireless networks across the country. That auction is expected to begin in the first half of 2021.

Rural Tribal applicants awarded spectrum licenses could leverage the opportunity as a revenue generator. Tribes will possess an asset that many telecom companies want. Any unused portions of the available frequency will likely be sold to large telecom companies for possibly millions of dollars.

According to an American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University study released last year, two-thirds of people living on rural Tribal lands lack high-speed Internet, while 18 percent of people living on reservations have no home Internet access at all. 

Native Business Executive Editor Carmen Davis recently put that into perspective: “That’s disconcerting always — but that reality is exacerbated during a global pandemic that amplifies socioeconomic disparities and deepens the fissure between lands connected to the Internet, and thus educational and economic opportunities, and those disconnected or off the grid.” 

As Matthew Rantanen, director of technology for the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association, told the AP about rural  Tribes’ express needs for broadband access on their lands now: “This is about Native children and distance learning. This is about Native communities and telemedicine. This is about the health and safety and life of Tribal members.”

Native Business recently dove into the digital schism between Indian Country and the rest of the nation, while tapping into opportunity that exists for Tribes, in the article Hoping for a Silver Lining: Tribes Take on the Digital Divide in the Covid-19 Era by Rob Capriccioso.

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