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Window opens for tribes to seek licenses for internet access

Patrick Lawson, executive manager of the Northern Arapaho Tribal Industries/Wind River Internet, tests broadband equipment in Fort Washakie on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming on Jan. 17. (Mariel Triggs via AP)

Patrick Lawson, executive manager of the Northern Arapaho Tribal Industries/Wind River Internet, tests broadband equipment in Fort Washakie on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming on Jan. 17. (Mariel Triggs via AP)

By FELICIA FONSECA
Associated Press

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — The Federal Communications Commission opened a window Monday for federally recognized tribes to apply for licenses that could help establish or increase internet access on their lands.

Tribes have been pushing to be first in line for mid-band spectrum licenses that are largely unassigned throughout the western United States and were once reserved for educational institutions. The 2.5 Ghz-band of spectrum — channels of electromagnetic waves — are seen as essential to increasing 5G access.

The FCC estimates that about one-third of people living on tribal lands have no access to high-speed internet, but others say the figure is twice as high.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai told tribes gathered in Washington last month for a broadband workshop that the licenses could be a “game-changer,” allowing tribes to consult specialists online, work from home, search for jobs, start online businesses and take classes online.

“I’m not speculating when I saw that this spectrum could deliver major benefits to rural tribal communities,” he said.

The tribal priority window closes Aug. 3.

Some organizations see serious flaws in the licensing rules that are now being challenged before the FCC.

Land designated for Native Hawaiians, for instance, would be subject to the rules meant to provide more internet access to rural, tribal areas. Native Hawaiians, though, can’t apply for the necessary licenses because they’re not among the 574 tribes recognized by the federal government.

The Department of Hawaiian Home Lands is asking the FCC to waive the eligibility requirement so it can apply on the behalf of Native Hawaiians who live on homesteads on 318 square miles on six islands.

“This trust relationship is uniquely similar to that of federally recognized tribes and, yet, not affording Native Hawaiians a similar opportunity for access to spectrum licenses creates an inequity that is contrary to the public interest,” the department wrote to the FCC last month.

Burt Lum, broadband strategist for the state of Hawaii, said the home lands have internet service to varying extents.

“It’s technology enabling a community for self-determination,” he said.

One of the largest organizations representing tribes, the National Congress of American Indians, is asking the FCC to reconsider the qualification requirements, particularly when it’s a matter of defining “tribal land” and the requiring the use of the word “rural.” The FCC defines rural tribal lands as places that are outside urban areas and have a population of less than 50,000 people. The National Congress of American Indians said that could exclude tribes with land near Seattle or Phoenix, for example.

“This trust relationship and responsibility applies equally to all federally recognized tribal nations, not just to certain sub-sets of tribal nations based on the location of tribal lands,” the organization wrote to the FCC.

Federally recognized tribes and tribally owned entities, including colleges and universities, are allowed by the tribal priority to apply for licenses.

Maps on the FCC’s website show tribes what spectrum is available over their land. The FCC staff also has been traveling throughout the country meeting with tribes to explain how the licensing works.

Mariel Triggs also has been reaching out to tribes and testing small networks on tribal lands. Triggs, chief executive of the nonprofit MuralNet, recently worked with the Havasupai Tribe deep in a gorge off the Grand Canyon to set up a community network.

“I’m really excited to see what we can learn from the networks they build,” she said. “How can you do it differently?”

Any tribe that receives a license must prove it is putting the spectrum to use. Licensees won’t be able to sell or transfer their licenses until they make the spectrum available to 80% of the population in the license’s coverage area within five years. The licenses can be leased.

The spectrum remaining after the tribal window closes will be auctioned off for commercial use. The telecommunications company, Sprint, is among the largest users.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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