Communities Supai Village | Courtesy of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

The FCC’s broadband Rural Tribal Window aims to close the digital divide in Indian Country.

In an interview this past September with KJZZ, Tribal Councilwoman Ophelia Watahomigie-Corliss emphasized the need for reliable high-speed internet to bring online high school classes to the Havasupai. Currently, the tribe only houses a K-8 school, and students have to leave their community to attend boarding schools if they want to continue their education.

With the help of Bay Area nonprofit MuralNet, the tribe set up a small wireless internet network that connected seven homes to high speed internet, but Watahomigie-Corliss wants that network to expand.

“We have different generations of telemedicine equipment that have just been sitting around collecting dust because it’s been unable to be established,” Watahomigie-Corliss said in the September interview. “Broadband speeds, high speed internet, those things are specific.”

Tribal Communities like the Havasupai in rural parts of the United States may finally get that chance, thanks to the Federal Communication Commission’s 2.5 GHz Rural Tribal Window. The move is designed to address the digital gap between tribal lands and the rest of the country.

Data shows a growing digital divide between rural tribes and the rest of the country. A 2019 study from the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University found that 18% of tribal lands have no internet access, and 31% have only spotty access through a cell phone.

Belinda Nelson, a chairperson with Gila River Telecommunications Inc. who testified before a U.S. Senate panel in September 2019, mentioned that FCC data shows just over half of tribal communities lack broadband internet access compared to a quarter for non-native communities.

The rural tribal window opened Monday, and will last for six months until August 3. During that time, tribes will be able to apply for free licenses for wireless spectrum above their land without having to face competition from outside entities and private telecom companies.

The FCC, which manages and licenses these frequencies, had originally sequestered the band for educational institutions. But in July 2019, the FCC decided to opened it up to tribes.

Tribes Have Struggled for Years With Licensing

The FCC has long faced criticism over its licensing of spectrum. A November 2018 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that tribes struggled to get information from the agency about who owned spectrum licenses over their lands. It also found that tribes relied on paying license holders for access to commercial bands of the spectrum, which for some tribes was cost-prohibitive, according to the GAO.

Nonprofit Helps Tribes Get Connected

MuralNet, a Bay Area non-profit, has been helping tribes like the Havasupai at the base of the Grand Canyon get connected to high speed internet. The group set up the tribe’s network after it received a license last year.

MuralNet CEO Mariel Triggs told KJZZ that the FCC’s old process was its biggest barrier to getting the network set up.

“We were able to put up a network in just a few hours for less than the cost of a Toyota Corolla frankly,” Triggs told the station. However, on its website, MuralNet noted the licensing process took four months even though staff were told it would take only a few weeks. 

Today, MuralNet is helping tribes with legal services and education about how to navigate the FCC’s process. In order to qualify, applicants must represent federally recognized tribes, reside in rural parts of the country, and plan to set up networks on tribal lands.

At the base of the Grand Canyon, MuralNet and the Havasupai are working to increase capacity and download speeds to as high as 1 Gigabyte per second.