Broadband Access Lags on Tribal Lands, Study Finds

Amy Johansson/

More than a third of Americans residing on tribal land lack high-speed internet access.

More than a third of Americans living on tribal land do not have high-speed internet service, and little of the federal funding aimed at increasing that access actually goes to programs that do so, according to a report from the federal Government Accountability Office.

Two federal agencies—the Federal Communications Commission and the Rural Utilities Service—provide the bulk of funding to expand broadband infrastructure in areas where the cost of providing service is high, including on tribal lands. The GAO study, released at the end of September, reviewed funding for four programs between the two agencies “and found that in total, less than 1 percent has gone directly to tribes or to tribally owned broadband providers to expand broadband service.”

Tribes are able to apply for federal funding, but tribal leaders have repeatedly identified barriers that make it difficult to complete that process.

“Representatives from eight of the tribes we contacted told us that in general, the language included in the federal grant applications is difficult to understand or the administrative requirements of federal grants are burdensome,” the study says. “Another tribal representative told us he would only recommend applying for RUS’s Community Connect program if the tribe has an entire team of dedicated people to manage the grant process.”

Other roadblocks include insufficient time between the announcement of grant availability and the due date for applications, and the standard requirement to include costly and time-consuming analysis, some of which must be performed by licensed engineers. Tribal officials in Washington state told the GAO that such analysis can be cost-prohibitive.

“Another tribal representative told us since the tribe has no way of knowing if the grant will be approved, spending money to complete the application is a large risk,” the study says.

Such barriers are a known issue, the report says. The Broadband Opportunity Council, a consortium of federal agencies and departments established in March 2015, recommended that agencies use “all available and appropriate authorities to identify and address regulatory barriers that may unduly impede either broadband deployment or the infrastructure to augment broadband deployment.”

But the Rural Utilities Service told GAO officials that it had not performed a formal assessment of the barriers that tribes face in applying for federal funding, citing limited resources.

“Lacking such an assessment, tribes may continue to face the regulatory barriers described above in obtaining RUS funding for broadband deployment on their lands,” the report says.

To combat the problem, the GAO report recommends that RUS actually assess and identify the “regulatory barriers that may unduly impede efforts by tribes to obtain RUS federal grant funds for broadband deployment on tribal lands and implement any steps necessary to address the identified barriers.”