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As Pandemic Lays Bare Digital Divide In Indian Country, Senators Prod FCC

Nearly half of households on tribal lands lack a broadband connection.
Nearly half of households on tribal lands lack a broadband connection.

Senate Democrats are pushing the Federal Communications Commission to expedite progress on broadband connectivity in Native communities. 

In a letter last week to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, the group of fourteen senators urged action on connecting Native communities to honor federal trust responsibility and ensure resources in the midst of COVID-19.  

“Now more than ever,” the senators wrote, “broadband services are vital to providing and maintaining essential community services, including ensuring members have access to telemedicine, virtual learning, and teleworking capabilities.”

A 2018 FCC report noted nearly half of households on rural tribal lands don't have access to broadband service.

According to Tracy Morris, executive director at the think tank American Indian Policy Institute, internet disparities can affect all walks of life

“Education, health, economic development, energy, water management, farming... Pretty much everything is at stake if we don't have access,” she said.

But Morris says the coronavirus is just the latest obstacle to put the digital divide in focus.    

“It's a very frustrating thing that it took a global pandemic to highlight an issue that we've been talking about for the last 15 years in Indian Country,” she said. 

Earlier this month, the FCC closed a priority window for rural tribes to apply for access to unassigned broadband spectrum, despite pleas for an extension from tribes and their allies. 

All this comes as the Department of the Interior prepares to host a virtual National Tribal Broadband Summit next week to address solutions. 

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The photo included in this story is licensed under Flickr Creative Commons.

Copyright 2021 KUNR Public Radio. To see more, visit KUNR Public Radio.

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