accessibility Native Indians United States

For Remote Tribes, Free Airwaves Licenses Mean Chance to Connect

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Many rural tribal lands lack internet access, but a new program to provide free broadband licenses to American Indians could change that.Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Jan. 27, 2020,

  • FCC starts offering American Indians spectrum licenses in February
  • Arizona’s Havasupai provide example for building, running network

Most people on rural tribal lands have no internet, but an unprecedented U.S. government effort to offer American Indians free licenses to a highly prized part of the airwaves may help change that.

Federally recognized American Indian tribes and Alaska Native villages will be eligible to apply to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission for free spectrum licenses during a six-month period starting Feb. 3. Only tribal communities not located near an urbanized area with more than 50,000 people can apply.

The effort is aimed at bringing internet connections to rural tribal lands—among the least connected parts of the country. Only 45% of people on those lands have access to fixed internet and LTE download speeds capable of streaming high-definition video, according to the latest FCC data. That leaves more than a million people without access to modern broadband internet service.

The prospect of tribes building their own networks would have been almost unthinkable in the past. But a proliferation of cheaper commercial-grade telecommunications equipment has significantly lowered network and maintenance costs.

“You let these tribes get access to their spectrum, they can put up networks in days,” Mariel Triggs, CEO of MuralNet, a nonprofit that helps tribes set up broadband networks, said. Triggs estimates a tribe could set up its own community broadband network for just $32,000, though that figure could vary widely depending on the size and layout of the community, and whether there’s existing infrastructure that can help carry cellular data traffic.

The airwaves had been reserved decades ago for universities and other educational institutions, first for broadcast TV and then for broadband.

But most educators didn’t use the spectrum themselves; instead they leased their licenses to carriers, including Sprint Corp., that operate commercial networks. That was a factor in the FCC’s decision last year to open up the band, known as the Educational Broadband Service, to tribes and commercial telecom providers.

Giving tribes a “priority window” for getting free licenses to repurpose that spectrum for their own broadband networks “finally gives people who are willing to serve tribal communities a chance to enjoy some of the benefits of 5G,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said earlier this month at a tech industry convention in Las Vegas.

The FCC is only offering free spectrum licenses to tribes in thinly populated areas where commercial carriers are unlikely to bid for them, because they don’t expect enough of a return on the investment.

Prize in the Sky

The airwaves lie in the middle of the radio spectrum, a prime location for 5G networks because they cover large areas and can transmit lots of data. The spectrum in urban areas is a major factor in T-Mobile US Inc.’s merger with Sprint, which has amassed a trove of the airwaves in major markets by leasing them from educational institutions.

Those institutions are still lobbying the FCC to give them a chance to acquire some of the remaining unused spectrum for free, along with the tribes, but the agency is unlikely to reverse course.

“These decisions effectively eliminate education from the EBS band at a time when access to the internet has never been more important to education and when educational institutions have proven themselves capable of deploying this spectrum, even without the help of a commercial lessee,” a group including the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition said in an FCC filing.

Grand Canyon Connection

The push for tribal internet builds on a successful test case of Arizona’s Havasupai Tribe bringing internet service to Supai, a town at the bottom of the Grand Canyon that can only be accessed on foot, by mule, or helicopter.

Supai’s broadband network, built with a temporary FCC license, cost about $35,000, including legal fees, which was covered by MuralNet. Flagstaff, Ariz.-based telecommunications provider Niles River Communications helps handle the Supai broadband network’s data traffic. The network needs about four hours of maintenance per month, Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss, a tribal councilwoman, said.

Last year, the Havasupai got a permanent license so their network could keep supporting a building for Early Head Start, the federally funded program for low-income infants, toddlers, pregnant women and their families, and homes for a dozen teachers in its village.

Supai’s internet service isn’t perfect. Homes on the edge of town have much slower speeds than those in the center, where there’s a direct line of sight to the network’s base station, installed on an existing telecommunications tower.

The tribe wants to expand internet services to support crisis communications in Supai, which lies in a flood-prone area of the Colorado River basin and lacks any direct line of communication to first responders. The tribe also wants to improve its network so high school students can take online courses, and make it possible for members to have virtual doctor visits using telemedicine.

“This could greatly reduce the financial impact that tribal members are forced to endure when they have to leave the canyon to go see a specialist,” Watahomigie-Corliss said. Currently, Supai residents who need to see a doctor must make the 8-mile trek out of the Grand Canyon by foot or on horseback.

Tribes that get free licenses could also opt to offer commercial internet services, opening up business opportunities, such as selling access to tourists, Triggs said.

DIY Internet

The airwaves up for grabs are highly valued because they travel miles and can penetrate walls, trees, and other objects, unlike high-band spectrum that wireless carriers are relying on for initial 5G deployments.

Airwaves that aren’t acquired by tribes by Aug. 3 will be auctioned off to telecom providers including AT&T Inc., T-Mobile, and other mobile carriers that are building out national 5G networks.

Tribes are only eligible for licenses for spectrum that’s now unlicensed. The FCC says it has notified every eligible tribe. It’s created a map of unlicensed spectrum on tribal lands and held a workshop to walk tribal officials through the application process and provide information on deploying networks.

To put the spectrum to use, tribes could hire commercial carriers or do it themselves with free guidance from nonprofits like MuralNet.

The nonprofit is advising tribal communities in 20 states about the spectrum opportunity, Triggs said. It has open-source software available for tribes, and affordable commercial-grade telecommunications equipment is available because providers such as Sprint are already using some of the airwaves, located in the 2.5 GHz band, with educator-leased licenses.

“If you can break into your router, and change the password, you can probably run one of our networks,” Triggs said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jon Reid in Washington at [email protected]

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Melissa B. Robinson at [email protected], Keith Perine at [email protected]