FCC seeks to connect all tribal libraries with high-speed internet access
Through Valerie Vande Panne
Jessica Rosenworcel, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, spoke with Indigenous News Online today on Affordable Internet Connectivity, Tribal Library Infrastructure and Connectivity.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Native News Online: Tell us about the Affordable Connectivity Program, specifically as it relates to Tribal Nations.
Rosenworcel: The Affordable Connectivity Program is the largest broadband accessibility program ever implemented in the country. It’s really exciting because we’ve never had such a big program. It’s historic. And that was really a consequence of the pandemic, which [we] have begun to realize that high-speed internet access is simply essential to trying to keep up with the pace of modern life. So we implemented a program last year that helps support internet access in low-income households, households that are on SNAP, Medicaid, who have children on the free and reduced meal program school, students with Pell grants, a bunch of ways you can qualify. It made a significant difference. Today, we are announcing that 10 million households have signed up for this program in less than a year. I know that some of our registrations have taken place on tribal lands. I hosted an event with the president of the Navajo Nation last year. And I remember after that event I had a terrific streak where they signed lots and lots of people. We therefore connect households, including on tribal lands.
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Native News Online: In particular, how does this program support people on tribal lands and in tribal nations?
Rosenworcel: Typically, the program provides $30 per month support for broadband service. But if you live on tribal land, that figure rises to $75 a month. And nationwide, we have over 1,000 participating Internet Service Providers. So, chances are, no matter who you are or where you live, there’s a company that can help you and help you get connected.
Native News Online: How does it help citizens of tribal nations connect?
Rosenworcel: One really great thing is that many participating internet service providers are offering a $100 discount on a tablet or computer. So there’s even a discount to make sure people get the devices they need to fully participate in life online.
Native News Online: Is there money available in this program to, for example, install broadband or increase the service area of broadband in more remote areas?
Rosenworcel: I’m so glad you brought this up. I have traveled to tribal areas and New Mexico, Washington, Nevada, as well as Hawaiian and Alaska Native lands. And you know, some of these places are just beautiful, but they’re often far away. We’re going to have to work to make sure that we have the infrastructure present in all of these places, so that communities can fully connect. And the FCC is doing some work on that. But the big deal is President Biden’s just-passed bipartisan infrastructure act, which has more than $65 billion that he’s going to make available to communities across the country to make sure the infrastructure is present. So if you combine these deployment efforts with this affordability program, I think we’re well on our way to connecting 100% of this country and that includes our tribal communities.
Native News Online: With this affordable connectivity program, how long is it good for? Is there a time when this money will run out?
Rosenworcel: When this program began, it was an emergency program at the height of the pandemic, but with President Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure legislation, Congress made it permanent. Currently, the FCC has more than $14.2 billion. I think that’s going to become a permanent feature of our communications policy in this country, because we’ve all recognized that we have to connect everyone, so that we have, you know, the creativity and the genius of everyone involved to civic and commercial life and having online access is really part of it.
Native News Online: What else do you want to add that is specific to tribal nations?
Rosenworcel: I spent time in New Mexico with tribal libraries. And they were connected using an FCC program called E-Rate. E-Rate is a program that helps libraries, rural, urban and otherwise, get high-speed connections. And it was extraordinary. These are communities that have been transformed by high-speed service. And I want to see if we can make sure that all the tribal libraries are connected in this country, and do what I’ve seen happen in these libraries in New Mexico. And I’m going to talk to the Home Secretary about it. And I hope that as this pandemic passes, by visiting more tribal libraries, I think making those connections to those institutions can change communities and can also reduce the cost of expanding infrastructure for people who live nearby. So I want to make it a priority during my time at the FCC. And hopefully with new funds and the old E-Rate program, we can do that. But the bottom line is that every library on tribal lands should be connected to super high-speed internet. I think it’s something that’s within reach. But it will take focus and effort.
Native News Online: This is exciting news. Would you like to add anything else?
Rosenworcel: When the Navajo Nation came to us and asked if we would host a virtual session with them to talk about our broadband accessibility programs, we said yes, [and] we cleared the calendar. And I want to make it clear to every tribe that we’re ready to do the same kind of thing – practically of course, right now. But I know that when people hear from trusted people in their communities about programs like the ones we run at the FCC, they’re more likely to take advantage of them and use them. I wish I could do more like what we did with the Navajo Nation.
Native News Online: And what is the first step that tribe members should take to reach out to learn more?
Rosenworcel: They can access the FCC’s web page fcc.gov/ACP. Here you will find information about the Affordable Connectivity Program and how to enroll. They can also contact my office at the agency, and we’ll be happy to put them in touch with the right people. You know, it’s the FCC. I answer my phone calls myself. I read my email. We believe in electronic communication.
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