Udall, Senators Call on FCC to Address Tribal Access to Broadband Expeditiously

Internet access is critical for telehealth services, online learning, telework and more, as Tribal governments work to mitigate the impacts of the global health pandemic and associated economic fallout. 

Essential to the federal government’s modern-day trust responsibility to Native communities is providing broadband access.

U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and a member of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee led a group of 14 Senate Democrats in calling on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to expedite broadband connectivity to Native communities. His call to action is to improve access to critical services during the pandemic including telemedicine, online education and teleworking opportunities. 

Udall was joined by U.S. Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawaii), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Jeffrey Merkley (D-Ore.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) in the letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, calling on the FCC to use existing authorities to ensure universal service for all Americans including those living in Native communities.                                                                   

According to the FCC, less than half of households on Tribal lands have access to fixed broadband service. This represents a nearly 27-point gap compared to non-Tribal rural areas. This gap only widens when compared to the country-wide average. In 2018, the FCC estimated that 35 percent of Americans living on Tribal lands lacked access to broadband services, compared to eight percent of all Americans. 

In the letter, the senators wrote that: “The federal trust responsibility imposes on the United States the highest moral and legal obligation toward American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian communities, as reflected in the Constitution of the United States, treaties, federal statues, Executive orders, and numerous court decisions.  It is one of the most important principles of federal Indian law, strengthening the United States’ government-to-government relationship with Indian tribes and promoting Tribal sovereignty and self-determination. The Commission has long recognized the unique government-to-government relationship between the federal government and Tribal governments, and that it requires the federal government to adhere to certain fiduciary standards in dealing with Indian Tribes. The failure to take action to provide essential broadband service in the midst of the COVID-19 calls into question the Commission’s adherence to the federal trust responsibility.

“We are concerned that under your leadership the Commission has not done enough to bridge the digital divide on Native lands, particularly during the ongoing COVID-19 national health emergency. Now more than ever, broadband services are vital to providing and maintaining essential community services, including ensuring members have access to telemedicine, virtual learning, and teleworking capabilities,” the senators continued.

“As you well know, the Commission is required by statute to ensure all Americans, including residents located on Native lands, have access to advanced telecommunications services in a ‘reasonable and timely fashion.’  We urge you to utilize your authority to immediately take the following actions in furtherance of the federal trust responsibility and in recognition of the power Congress entrusted to the Commission to take necessary actions to ensure universal service.  These actions are within your authority and can be taken immediately to ensure that these communities have the resources necessary to manage through this pandemic, and prevent these communities from falling further behind,” concluded the senators.