Bipartisan Legislation Introduced to Improve Broadband Access for Tribal Communities

Indian Country lacks broadband coverage

Published May 7, 2018

WASHINGTON — Congressman Markwayne Mullin (R-OK) and Congressman Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) introduced the bipartisan Tribal Connect Act to promote broadband access in tribal communities. The bill, which was introduced last year in the Senate by U.S. Senators Martin Heinrich and (D-NM) and Dean Heller (D-NV), amends current E-Rate eligibility requirements to allow more tribal libraries to apply for the program. E-Rate, the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) schools and libraries universal service support program, provides discounts to help public schools and libraries obtain high-speed internet access and telecommunication services at affordable rates.

“In my home state of Oklahoma, more than 45 percent of individuals living on tribal land don’t have access to high-speed internet,” said Mullin. “The unfortunate result is that tribal students and community members find themselves significantly behind the digital curve of the 21st century. The Tribal Connect Act aims to increase access to broadband in tribal areas by removing barriers to E-rate program grants and providing tribal schools and libraries a better opportunity to obtain more affordable, more reliable internet.”

“In today’s 21st century economy, internet access is a necessity for entrepreneurs who want to start a business, students with homework assignments, and families who want to stay connected,” said Luján. “Unfortunately, too many communities still lack access to high-speed broadband. The Tribal Connect Act will help us bridge this digital divide in Indian Country by expanding tribal access to the E-Rate program. This will connect more schools, libraries, and communities while strengthening New Mexico’s economy.”

The Tribal Connect Act also provides $100 million over five years to establish a tribal E-Rate program. Tribes without libraries will be able to designate an “anchor institution,” such as a chapter house or community center, to apply for the funding to provide internet access to students, teachers, and the community.

According to the FCC’s most recent broadband deployment report, more than 75 percent of those living on tribal lands in New Mexico and more than 45 percent in Oklahoma do not have access to high-speed, fixed broadband.

Senator Heinrich has championed the bipartisan Tribal Connect Act in the Senate. Earlier this month, he partnered with the American Library Association to host a panel in the U.S. Capitol on the legislation.

“Access to high-speed internet is increasingly essential to daily life and brings unprecedented economic opportunities for users, especially for people living in rural areas. With this bicameral, bipartisan support for the Tribal Connect Act, the momentum to close the digital divide in Indian Country continues to grow,” said Senator Heinrich. “The Tribal Connect Act is an investment in broadband infrastructure and high-speed internet access in Indian Country so all of our students and children can compete on an even playing field and learn the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century. Connecting more tribes to the E-rate program will strengthen broadband across rural New Mexico and improve education, boost the economy, and increase public safety and civic engagement.”

“According to the FCC, more than 70 percent of Nevada’s tribal communities do not have access to high-speed internet. This legislation will go a long way toward bringing broadband into more of Nevada’s tribal communities to help students, educators, and more,” said Senator Heller. “I thank Representatives Markwayne Mullin and Ben Ray Luján for their work on this bill in the House and look forward to pushing our legislation through Congress and to the President’s desk.”

Supporters of the Tribal Connect Act include the National Congress of American Indians, the American Library Association, and the National Indian Education Association.

“In today’s fast-paced world, high-speed internet is essential for the success of all Americans; however, not all Americans have access to high-speed internet. Many Native communities have endured this lack of connectivity, which has created barriers to success in education and employment,” said Jacqueline Pata, Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians. “The Tribal Connect Act will help remove these barriers and connect Native students to the online educational resources necessary to flourish in today’s economy.”

“Internet access and the skills to use it are two of the most essential services libraries provide across the U.S.,” said Jim Neal, President of the American Library Association (ALA). “This is no less important in tribal communities, but tribal libraries often struggle to secure the high-capacity broadband needed to support distance education, provide job training programs, or help patrons obtain health information and government benefits. The Tribal Connect Act of 2018 will ensure tribal libraries can apply for funding from the FCC’s E-rate program, which can make all the difference to a library in obtaining necessary internet connectivity. ALA wholeheartedly supports the Act and commends Congressmen Luján and Mullin for introducing it.”

“Broadband is necessary for a 21st century education. Access to broadband is a significant challenge on tribal lands – 90 percent of rural residents and 60 percent of Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools lack adequate access,” said the National Indian Education Association (NIEA). “NIEA supports opportunities for tribes to expand broadband access to tribal libraries and their communities through the Tribal Connect Act of 2017. Technology and broadband services are vital tools in order for Native students to have the opportunity to thrive in the classroom and beyond.”

Join the conversation on the Tribal Connect Act using the hashtag #TribalConnect

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