On September 23, 2009, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a Public Notice seeking comment "on identifying and remedying barriers to broadband deployment and adoption on Tribal lands." The FCC intends this Public Notice to "contribute to...the Commission's development of a National Broadband Plan (NBP)" by February 17, 2010, as it was charged by Congress to do under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Recovery Act). Though the Commission has received comments under a general Notice of Inquiry on the NBP earlier this year, and has held a number of workshop discussions as well, it is seeking focused comments on how to reduce or eliminate specific barriers to broadband deployment and adoption in Indian Country. Initial comments are due November 9, 2009 and comments replying to initial comments filed are due December 9, 2009.

The Commission acknowledges that addressing these issues effectively is made more complicated by the lack of hard data regarding the extent of broadband deployment on Tribal lands. However, while the 2007 Current Population Survey performed by the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that American Indian/Alaskan Native households have a nationwide broadband subscription rate of "at most 30 percent", only 16.9% of American Indian/Alaskan Native rural households using the Internet subscribe to broadband, or about 1 of every 6 households.

1. Request for Quantitative Data

The commission requests that "all parties submit any quantitative data, studies or analyses" (not simply anecdotal information) regarding the current extent of broadband deployment and adoption on Tribal lands. The Commission makes this request for data "fully cognizant of the political sovereignty of the Tribes and of their rights to govern their own affairs within their own borders" but also recognizing "the unique legal [and trust] relationship" between the federal government and Indian Tribal governments.

Noting the correlation between low broadband subscription and low population density because of the rural nature of many Tribal lands, the Commission recognizes that private providers of telecommunications and broadband services have not widely served Tribal areas, forcing some tribes (only 8 of 563 so far) to form their own tribally owned and operated telecommunications carriers. Yet all eight Tribes that created their own telephone company "have seen dramatic increases in service penetration rates" since they were formed.

The FCC seeks comment on the tools and resources available to promote broadband deployment in Tribal areas, including:

  • any specific lessons that have been learned from the buildout of telephone lines to certain Indian lands and whether they can be applied to the deployment of broadband;
  • whether any examples of Tribal, state and local government coordination exist in the buildout of telecom infrastructure that could be a model for deployment of broadband; and
  • what specific actions can "the FCC and or other federal agencies" take to promote greater coordination and collaboration between the FCC, other federal agencies and Tribal, state and local governments to promote broadband deployment? This might be an opportunity, for example, for Tribes to request that specific broadband stimulus funding be set aside or earmarked for Tribal Lands under the next Notice of Funding Availability (one consolidated remaining round is an idea currently under active consideration according to recent congressional testimony of the NTIA Administrator).

2. Broadband Mapping - The Public Notice also requests comment on what efforts state-sponsored or private mapping efforts are taking to include Tribal lands in their broadband mapping efforts, and the reasons for the inability to include Tribal lands in those efforts. The Commission inquires whether overlaying data complied by carriers and ISPS with tribal census tract data would accurately show broadband penetration in Indian country.

3. Digital Literacy Training in Promoting Broadband Adoption - The Commission observes that digital literacy and education are key components of broadband adoption. The Commission asks what tools can the Commission and tribes use to advance digital literacy and education on Tribal lands, and if there are specific Tribal facilities which are serving or could serve as training locations (such as "chapter houses", schools, libraries, community colleges, Boys & Girls Clubs, community centers, etc.). Finally, the Commission would like to know what percent of Tribal community centers, schools, and households are "passed today" by (a) fixed telephony; (b) mobile telephone; and (c) cable TV services.

4. Adoption and Affordability - The Commission recognizes that the price of broadband service and the cost of equipment "can be a barrier to broadband adoption and sustainability in certain markets, including in Indian Country." Accordingly, the FCC would like to know what public and private entities can do to promote broadband adoption, such as making computers available at a discount, or discounting monthly services to qualifying households on Tribal lands. Also, should Lifeline/Link Up funding --already available to many Tribal Telcos for voice subscribers-- also be made available to assist in reducing broadband connectivity and service to Tribal homes and how should it be funded?

5. The Role of Private Broadband Service Providers - The Commission notes that because of the low population density and sometimes difficult terrain of many Tribal areas, carriers and broadband providers have not widely served these areas. And tribal sovereignty and rights of way issues over Tribal lands can "further complicate entry" of broadband providers. Is a pilot program to support broadband services for low-income customers on Tribal lands practical? If so, how it should be administered? And what steps should the FCC and Tribes take to facilitate carrier broadband entry into Tribal areas that is affordable and sustainable?

A copy of the 2006 GAO report, "Challenges to Assessing and Improving Telecommunications For Native Americans on Tribal Lands," can be found here.