Tribal advocates say the FCC’s maps are symbolic of wider, systemic issues, but help may be on the way via a new Virtual Tribal Broadband Office.
For years, the federal government has acknowledged the difficulties of mapping broadband internet availability on tribal lands and urged federal agencies to up their game.
In 2018, the Government Accountability Office said the Federal Communications Commission’s data overstated tribal broadband access. In June 2022, the GAO called for a national strategy and framework to increase tribal access, especially as federal funding for tribal broadband lagged in other parts of the country.
The FCC’s latest attempt to map broadband availability based on a new data collection process had been the cause of some optimism, but tribal advocates and researchers said the first round maps still fall short in Indian Country, perhaps irreparably.
Ernie Rasmussen, executive director of Bigfoot Telecommunications, the internet service provider for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in northeastern Washington, described the maps as “horrible,” “egregious” and at worst “negligent” because they do not reflect the reality on the ground.
Separately, based on his group’s research, Dustin Loup, a program manager at the National Broadband Mapping Coalition, said the maps’ data on addresses and availability could be off by as much as 60%.
Both also were critical of the process up to this point. Loup said the release of a second version of a map to internet service providers and other stakeholders—but not to the public—could create “conflicting versions” that could make challenges difficult to adjudicate. Rasmussen called the challenge process itself “ridiculous” for tribal governments, as they do not have the financial or human resources to dispute the data submitted by internet service providers in time to meet a Jan. 13 deadline.
In response, an FCC spokesperson said the commission “can’t know the full ground truth in every state, Tribal area, county, town, and village throughout the country.” There is an “ongoing data collection process” that allows data to be refined, the spokesperson said, noting that there have been “significant increases” in the number of broadband-serviceable locations between versions one and two of the location data fabric.
“We knew that the initial map was not going to be perfect, in fact the map will never be final,” the FCC spokesperson continued. “We hope that states, Tribal Nations, ISPs and other stakeholders will continue to be our partners in improving the maps. In many ways, the challenges being submitted show that the processes and systems we created are working exactly as Congress and the FCC designed them.”
A major issue that advocates raised with the first draft of the FCC’s maps related to serviceable addresses. Tribal lands typically do not use standardized home addresses, so they do not fit in the maps’ location fabric data, which uses traditional street addresses. Some tribes rely on informal, descriptive addresses, like the blue house 3 miles west of Route 550 just past the Animus River. Others like the Navajo Nation rely on Plus Codes, which use longitude and latitude to produce short digital addresses that are easy to share.
That data mismatch creates dramatic inconsistencies that speak to broader issues with the FCC’s map and its address-level data. Loup said the coalition’s research has shown reservations are missing many addresses, while a basketball court near his parents’ home is counted as a broadband-serviceable location. He called those inconsistencies “disconcerting.”
The maps also do not include communities’ anchor institutions like schools, hospitals and municipal buildings such as post offices, which does even more to misrepresent the on-the-ground reality, according to Joe Valandra, president and CEO of Tribal Ready, which will soon begin to help work to close the digital divide in Indian Country.
Valandra said those anchor institutions are the “hub of life for most Indian reservations” and failing to map them and show whether they can connect to broadband internet does not reflect their importance on tribal lands. A letter from two advocacy groups representing over 100 public sector and community organizations raised similar concerns around the map’s lack of information about anchor institutions and urged the FCC to rectify that omission in future drafts.
Another concern is that the data the FCC makes available does not reflect every challenge with tribal broadband connectivity, said Sharayah Lane, senior advisor for indigenous community connectivity at the nonprofit Internet Society. She said the maps’ lack of information on the cost of available internet does not give a full picture of the reality on the ground where broadband access, where available, is often too expensive. Additionally, tribes’ own hyper localized efforts to provide connectivity to their communities should also be shown, Lane said.
Efforts to better understand broadband availability on tribal lands have been complicated by a poor relationship between the FCC and tribal communities, Lane said. While that relationship is improving, she said, recent hearings attempted to highlight just how much work remains to truly measure tribal connectivity, a challenge that is made more difficult by the vast differences between nations.
“Every community looks so different, the realities that each community is facing are very different,” Lane said. “If you really want to be able to tackle the problems, then you have to have a much better understanding on the front end, which has been a challenge for the FCC and something that people have been calling them to do for a long time.”
For tribal governments, a lack of connectivity not only limits employment opportunities and can stymie economic development, but it also limits access to basic services. Poor or nonexistent internet prevents residents from taking advantage of telehealth, while first responders hamstrung by poor broadband connectivity must rely entirely on radios and forego more advanced, data-based public safety applications.
High-speed internet, Valandra said, could help not only with day-to-day safety but also during emergencies, when unreliable radio and wireless communications may lead to avoidable deaths.
New ‘Virtual Tribal Broadband Office’ could bring greater state advocacy
While the situation may seem hopeless, Valandra and other advocates are working with broadband grant matchmaker Broadband.Money to build a brighter future by standing up what they are calling the first-ever “Virtual Tribal Broadband Office,” which is set to launch later this month and will work exclusively with state-level broadband offices across the United States.
Valandra said the virtual office will be available to every tribe in every state and help them gather speed test and other technical data necessary to present to state broadband offices that administer the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment grant funding.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration expects to communicate allocation levels through the BEAD program in June, and Valandra said while it is too late to shape the amount of federal money on offer, tribes can advocate for their “fair share” of each state’s allocation.
If “done properly,” Valandra said tribes could be entitled to up to another $7 billion from BEAD to help build out broadband networks. Already, the federal government has awarded more than $1 billion to tribal connectivity projects.
As well as helping tribes advocate for more funding, Valandra said the Virtual Tribal Broadband Office will also help them design and build out their networks. However, the financials remain the top priority in the coming months, he said, as without investment networks cannot be built.
“We realized we have to start with funding because it's just damned expensive to build these [networks] out, and we need to make sure that the tribes get as much of the resources as they deserve in this process,” he said.
The launch of the new Virtual Tribal Broadband Office will come just a few months after President Joe Biden announced the Department of the Interior would establish an Office of Indigenous Communications & Technology, which the administration said in a fact sheet would help tribes in “managing, developing and maintaining broadband infrastructure,” among other initiatives.
Others are not convinced that working with the states is the best path forward. Rasmussen said it will “embolden” states with “a paternal relationship” between tribes and state governments. He said he is “not hopeful” that federal grants will go where they are needed most on tribal lands, especially as tribes must still answer to states to access funds.
For its part, the FCC said the commission would continue its “significant outreach” to tribal communities to get them to participate in its challenge process and continue to shape future versions of the broadband maps. The spokesperson noted that mapping broadband in this way is a “massive undertaking,” especially with “no existing dataset to rely on.”
Lane said success for broadband rollout on tribal lands will mean respecting each community’s self-determination and letting them decide “what connectivity will mean for their communities.” That could include using broadband to help with language preservation, the mapping of sacred sites, or advancing tribal colleges and universities, in addition to areas like workforce development, she said
While there may be challenges ahead, Lane said a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” exists for tribes to improve the lives of their residents through greater connectivity.