Congress, Tribes Again Express Concern with FCC’s EBS Tribal Window Rollout

It has been over 4 months since the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to overhaul the Educational Broadband Service (EBS) spectrum band (2.5 GHz) and prepare it for commercial auction. As EBS licensees, Voqal strongly opposed the Commission’s decision because it was an enormous missed opportunity not only to strengthen educational benefits, but also to close the homework gap and digital divide in rural areas.

One of the few bright spots of the Report & Order was the FCC’s decision to create a Tribal Priority Filing Window, which will allow rural tribes to apply for new EBS spectrum licenses over their land for free. Tribes experience some of the worst broadband access. According to the FCC, just 67.9% of residents on Tribal lands have access to broadband.

EBS spectrum is a tremendous tool to help close this gap on Tribal lands. Recently, however, the Commission has faced intense criticism of its education and rollout of the Tribal window process. Parties are particularly concerned that the FCC is not doing enough to educate tribes of the opportunity to apply for an EBS license.

In a recent letter and press release from the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the main oversight Committee for the FCC, Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle (D-PA) and Reps. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), Tom O’Halleran (D-AZ) and Raul Ruiz (D-CA) did not mince words:

“If the FCC sincerely wants to provide tribes and tribal organizations with this opportunity, then it must give them a meaningful opportunity to participate. You made it clear that providing a priority window for tribes and tribal organizations was an important step toward helping these communities, and now we urge you to follow through on that promise by giving them enough time to take advantage of it.”

Members of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee also expressed their concern about the Tribal window in a letter to the FCC, noting that by the Commission’s own estimate just over one percent of all Indian Tribes were likely to participate in the auction:

“…the Commission’s own data acknowledges that Tribes will not be adequately informed about the Tribal priority window.”

“…we are concerned that the Commission is expediting the timeframe Tribes have to become informed about eligible EBS spectrum in their communities, jeopardizing the overall success of the Tribal window. Accordingly, we strongly suggest that the Commission allow itself additional time to redouble its Tribal outreach efforts, and to ensure all Tribes are provided with proper notice, guidance, and assistant to utilize this spectrum opportunity.”

Members of Congress are not the only ones expressing concern. Tribal nations have consistently criticized the FCC’s handling of the Tribal Window. In October, the National Congress of American Indians passed a resolution calling on the FCC to:

“(1) adjust the opening of the window to April 1, 2020 so that the FCC can provide proper notice and guidance, introduce complete mapping tools, as well as provide robust outreach, and government-to-government consultation and training with inter-tribal government associations and entities in all regions of the country, and (2) extend the timeframe for the Tribal Priority window to a full 180 days so that eligible entities have an opportunity to adequately prepare for and obtain the Tribal Priority license, thus ensuring the greatest possibility of success for the implementation of a license to deploy broadband services in the 2.5 GHz EBS spectrum”

Other tribal groups have called for even more education and time. In an October 18 filing, the National Tribal Telecommunications Association (NTTA) expressed support for a 180-day Tribal window. In addition, the Havasupai Tribal Council recommend that the FCC “adopt a 1-year tribal education period and a 6-month tribal priority application, with rolling application approval that would allow tribes to start build out immediately.”

Because 2.5 GHz is used other countries, tower equipment and devices are both available and affordable for Tribal Nations and rural providers. For example, MuralNet, a nonprofit partnering with rural tribes, installed an entire broadband network for residents in the most remote community in the lower 48 states in half a day for as little as $10,000.

In addition, the EBS frequencies are superior to other spectrum bands. EBS spectrum travels further than other mid-band options like Citizens Broadband Radio Service (3.5 GHz) or the soon-to-be-available C-Band (3.7 GHz to 4.2 GHz). In addition, due to a higher allowed power level, 2.5 GHz signals can penetrate walls and travel further.

The advantages of EBS spectrum are clear. That’s one of the reasons why the Commission agreed to create the Tribal Priority Filing Window — one of the rare positive developments of the EBS rulemaking. But without a serious commitment to educating tribes and making this opportunity real, this opportunity will ultimately fail.

This post was updated on 11/21 to add a reference to a letter from the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to FCC Chairman Pai .