Native Nations Own Broadband Spectrum on Tribal Lands: Haaland, Warren Bill to Grant Permanent Access

“Our DIGITAL Reservations bill will help Tribes fully realize self-governance and protect their sovereign right to manage their own natural resources on Tribal lands and ensure Native communities aren’t stuck in the digital divide,” said Congresswoman Haaland.

If passed, this bill would eliminate the FCC’s role in selling spectrum rights off Tribal lands without Tribal consent, and create the first Tribal Broadband Fund to immediately deploy life-saving wireless services on Tribal lands. 

Congresswoman Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have introduced an historic bill that would affirm Tribal Nations’ and Native Hawaiian organizations’ ownership of broadband spectrum over their lands to deploy wireless internet services. 

What you need to know about the DIGITAL Reservations Act:

  • It would affirm Tribal sovereignty to spectrum rights for the first time in United States history by granting Native Nations full permanent access to spectrum licenses over Tribal lands to fulfill true self-governance and self-management of modern natural resources on their lands.
  • The bill would eliminate the FCC’s role in selling spectrum rights off Tribal lands without Tribal consent, and create the first Tribal Broadband Fund to immediately deploy life-saving wireless services on Tribal lands. 

The DIGITAL Reservations Act affirms Native Nation’s rights to broadband spectrum specifically by: 

  • Directing the FCC to allocate to Indian Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations autonomy of spectrum licenses over Tribal lands to deploy wireless broadband and digital services so Tribal members can access critical services like public safety, healthcare, education, employment, voting, the Census, and COVID-19 resources like any person living off Tribal lands. 
  • Prohibiting the FCC from selling Tribal spectrum licenses at private auctions to for-profit corporations.
  • Permanently eliminating the public availability of spectrum over Tribal lands.
  • Creating the FCC’s first Tribal Broadband Fund so American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians living on Tribal lands have access to wireless digital services and network infrastructure for the first time.
  • Ending failed Federal “Reservation Era” policies of the late 1800s by eliminating the FCC’s ability to sell Tribal spectrum resources, or natural resources, to for-profit corporations without Tribal consultation.
  • Strengthening the full realization of Native Nations’ inherent self-governance over activities taking place on their lands. 

What inspired the introduction of the bill: 

  • The bill comes as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has so far refused to extend the Rural Tribal Priority Window to apply for 2.5GHz spectrum over Tribal lands beyond August 3rd amidst the global pandemic. 
  • Although the United States scores above the world average for connection rates to fixed broadband services for Americans living off Tribal lands at 92 percent, only 65 percent of Native Americans living on Tribal lands have access to these wireless services, leaving approximately 1.5 million people on reservations without access to basic wireless services. 
  • Because Indian Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations cannot access spectrum rights to deploy broadband and telephone networks over their their lands, in some of the most geographically isolated areas in the country, Native Americans continue to suffer from lack of access to life-saving digital services that can address the missing and murdered Indigenous women crisis and youth suicide, education and employment opportunities, and telehealth services. This situation continues the failed “Reservation Era” policies by creating “digital reservations.” 

What legislators are saying: 

“Connectivity is key to ensuring Native Americans have access to education resources, telehealth, and public safety, but Native Americans living on reservations have been left behind in the digital divide, and sovereign Native Nations encounter significant barriers to access spectrum rights on their Tribal lands to deploy wireless broadband to their communities. Our DIGITAL Reservations bill will help Tribes fully realize self-governance and protect their sovereign right to manage their own natural resources on Tribal lands and ensure Native communities aren’t stuck in the digital divide,” said Congresswoman Haaland.

“Wireless broadband access on Tribal lands is worse than just about anywhere else in America, and more than a third of those living on Tribal lands don’t have high-speed broadband at all,” Senator Warren said. “Without it, Native communities are shut out of a 21st-century economy and have limited access to life-saving services—a crisis that is even more urgent during the COVID-19 pandemic. Congresswoman Haaland’s and my bill to recognize Native Nations’ ownership of spectrum over their lands affirms their sovereignty and provides a path to desperately needed connectivity.”

Senator Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) is cosponsoring the bill. “Native communities should have permanent access to available and unlicensed electromagnetic spectrum over their lands—including Hawaiian Home Lands in Hawaii. This legislation would give Native Hawaiian, Alaska Native, and American Indian communities control over these licenses to help expand broadband access, which has become particularly critical in response to the coronavirus pandemic, as schools pursue online instruction and more health care providers offer telehealth options,” said Senator Hirono.

More endorsements can be found here.

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