Pressure Mounts to Extend Opportunity for Rural Tribal Nations to Access Spectrum

Photo of FCC Building

Late last month, we wrote about the growing concern that rural tribal nations might miss a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to apply for Educational Broadband Spectrum (EBS) over their lands due to the impact of COVID-19. EBS is an important tool to deliver affordable wireless broadband services. On February 3, the FCC opened its first-ever Rural Tribal Priority Window to assign unused EBS spectrum over tribal lands. Unfortunately, many tribes have been significantly impacted by COVID-19.

As of May 26, tribal entities have submitted 42 applications in the Rural Tribal Priority Window. That’s an improvement over the 24 applications that were filed last month, but well short of the 639 tribal lands with EBS spectrum available. Since we first highlighted this issue, a number of groups have joined the chorus urging the FCC for an extension of the tribal window beyond the current August 3, 2020 deadline.

Colorado Broadband Office

In its late April filing with the FCC, the Colorado Broadband Office (CBO) asked the Commission to extend the Rural Tribal Priority Window by 180 days. As the CBO rightly points out:

“The 2.5 GHz spectrum opportunity and the associated Rural Tribal Window timeline should be extended to accommodate the realities of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Tribal Nations. The Nations’ ability to focus on the vitally important 2.5 GHz spectrum opportunity has understandably been sidelined in order to address the immediate critical needs of health care, public safety, and unemployment as a result of the pandemic. Continuing with the preexisting Rural Tribal Window timeline will result in fewer applications and will effectively negate the Commission’s laudable policy objective of establishing a priority window in the first place.”

National Tribal Telecommunications Association

On April 30, the National Tribal Telecommunications Association (NTTA), a group of tribally-owned telecommunications companies, filed a Motion for Extension of the Time for Rural Tribal Priority Window Applications. The formal motion details how many tribes are experiencing significant challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. NTTA requests that the Commission not only extend the Rural Tribal Priority Window by 90 days but also that tribes who have already applied get access to the spectrum on the original timeline of August 3.

“NTTA recognizes that approximately 24 applications have been received pursuant to the Rural Tribal Priority Window for access to 2.5 GHz spectrum. NTTA does not desire to affect these applications with this motion for extension of time, and thus requests the Commission allow these applicants, to the extent the applications meet all criteria set out by the FCC, to gain access to the spectrum as originally scheduled.”

Gila River Telecommunications, Inc.

Shortly after the NTTA motion was filed, Gila River Telecommunications, Inc. (GRTI) filed comments in support of the NTTA petition for a 90-day extension of the window. In it pleading to the Commission, GRTI points out:

“In light of the pandemic, GRTI urges the Commission to grant NTTA’s motion and to do so expeditiously. Additional time is warranted to ensure Tribal entities have a clear understanding of the time in which they have to adapt to this ‘new reality’ and conduct the due diligence necessary to not only apply for the spectrum but to understand what will be needed to comply with buildout requirements that go along with the license.”

Native Nations Communication Task Force

Members of the Native Nations Communication Task Force filed comments on May 7 highlighting the impact of COVID-19 on Tribal communities.

“With both tribal and state stay-at-home orders in place across most of Indian Country, and as the rates of positive cases of COVID-19 dramatically increase across the country, Native Nations are working to prioritize life-saving measures and deployment of critical government services to combat the negative impacts of the pandemic in an effort to keep their respective tribal communities safe. While critically important to tribal governments and their entities, the 2.5 GHz spectrum opportunity has necessarily taken a subordinate position in this national emergency. This pandemic has created unparalleled barriers for Indian Country to focus on. Tribal leadership, and elected leadership across the country, have poured resources into emergency health care, public safety, unemployment, and other immediate needs, while combatting the coronavirus, in an effort to keep the country afloat.”

Rural Assembly

Perhaps the most compelling comments to the FCC came from a group of 44 organizations and 179 individuals asking for an extension. The document includes a variety of short-term and long-term recommendations, including:

“Extend the 2.5 GHz Tribal Priority Window for tribes to access unclaimed spectrum licenses over their lands. Tribal governments and entities, the intended beneficiaries of this proceeding, are fully focused on protecting Native communities from COVID-19. An extension of the 2.5 GHz Tribal Priority Window will allow tribal governments to continue to devote their time, resources, and efforts on keeping their communities healthy and safe, and apply at a later date when they have had time to recuperate.”

The group made a variety of other recommendations, including expanding Lifeline on tribal lands, creating a tribal-specific broadband subsidy fund, and allowing tribes to get spectrum access prior to other spectrum auctions.

No Decision Yet

In addition to requesting an extension of the window, some filers have asked the commission to also grant submitted applications. This would give other tribes an early opportunity to access spectrum and help deploy broadband in their communities. The commission has made no decision to extend the window yet. Voqal supports a minimum extension of 90 days to allow tribes enough time to manage the COVID-19 pandemic on their lands and plan and apply for EBS spectrum. Voqal will continue to promote the Rural Tribal Priority Window and work to ensure all eligible tribes have a fair shot at accessing this invaluable resource.