NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The COVID-19 crisis has disrupted a rare opportunity for Native American communities to address a lack of critical internet access, supporters and elected officials say, by missing a deadline to obtain free broadband licenses from the government.
The cutoff for tribes to apply for licenses from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) expires on August 3, and the process entails submitting complex applications, surveys and maps, said officials at a digital rights conference on Monday.
Only about 15% of eligible tribes have applied, said FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel during a question-and-answer session at the virtual RightsCon conference.
The FCC says 628,000 tribal households lack access to standard broadband, a rate more than four times that of the general population, and a 2019 study by the American Indian Policy Institute found nearly one in five reservation residents has no internet at home.
Internet access is key to getting education, services, businesses and commerce to Native American communities which are poor and marginalized, advocates said.
“We want to see tribes have access to airwaves and do neat things with it,” Rosenworcel said, calling it a “once in a lifetime opportunity for tribes.”
She blamed the COVID-19 public health crisis for slowing down the number of applications and called upon the FCC to extend the deadline. The FCC set the deadline late last year when it announced that native communities could obtain free licenses for broadband, giving tribes the opportunity to build local internet infrastructure.
A coalition of digital rights and native groups has asked Congress to extend the deadline by 180 days, saying tribes are facing significant hurdles to finishing applications on time due to the COVID-19 crisis.
A number of lawmakers have spoken up in favor of extending the deadline, including Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Kyrsten Sinema, both of whom have sizable Native American populations in their home states.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai did not respond to a request for comment about extending the deadline
Darrah Blackwater, an indigenous activist, said at RightsCon that ironically the lack of connectivity on tribal lands made it more difficult for tribes to apply.
“Because they aren’t connected they can’t do it virtually,” she said.
Native American reservations have been hard hit by the coronavirus, and communities have struggled to fill out the technical applications, said Traci Morris, head of the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University.
Training sessions and seminars to help tribes put together the applications were canceled due to COVID-19, she said.
Their need for internet connections is more acute than ever, she added.
“How do you do telehealth? How do you do contact tracing? It’s all depending on the internet,” she said. “It is necessary for every part of functioning life in the U.S. - governance, taxes, education, health care.”
Commercial providers are often too expensive or not available on tribal lands, she said.
Reporting by Avi Asher-Schapiro, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org