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FCC action could improve broadband access across area tribal lands

This photo from Feb. 25, 2019 show a banner of the 5G network is displayed during the Mobile World Congress wireless show, in Barcelona, Spain. T-Mobile launched 5G service on Friday in Kettle Falls and Colville. (Manu Fernandez / AP)
This photo from Feb. 25, 2019 show a banner of the 5G network is displayed during the Mobile World Congress wireless show, in Barcelona, Spain. T-Mobile launched 5G service on Friday in Kettle Falls and Colville. (Manu Fernandez / AP)

Better educational access for tribal children would be among the benefits under a federal decision to give federally recognized tribes priority access to broadband licenses, area tribal spokesmen say.

The Federal Communications Commission opened the window Monday for federally-recognized tribes to apply for mid-band spectrum licenses, which could help establish or boost internet service in their communities.

The licenses were once reserved for educational institutions and now are largely unassigned across the western United States. The 2.5 Ghz-band of spectrum is seen as key to expanding 5G access.

Spokane Tribe Chairwoman Carol Evans said the tribe is “very interested” in obtaining a mid-band spectrum license and will be filing an application with assistance from the Spokane Tribal Telecom Exchange.

Evans said the ability to expand internet service on the Spokane Indian Reservation would provide greater access for students to participate in online classes.

Internet access is currently “hit or miss” on the reservation, but the Spokane Tribe is working to bring in infrastructure to support service expansion, Evans added.

“I think it is good that the FCC is allowing tribes the ability to apply for licensing,” she said. “It is our tribal lands and it doesn’t end with the land, it should go up in the air, too. I think it’s a long time coming.”

The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation wrote a letter to the FCC last year urging the agency to expand license eligibility to tribes.

The Colville Reservation, spanning more than 1.4 million acres, lacks the telecommunication services found in populated metro areas.

If the Colville tribes were to acquire one or more mid-band spectrum licenses, it could provide improved public safety, education and cellular phone service to residents on the reservation, said Rodney Cawston, chairman of the Colville tribes.

“Many of our communities are at a major disadvantage not having access to broadband, especially our children for their education,” Cawston said. “We just really need to make or create those opportunities for our community, not only for education and health, but essential government services on the reservation.”

Representatives of the Kalispel and Coeur d’Alene tribes were not immediately available for comment Monday.

The FCC estimates that about one-third of people living on tribal lands don’t have access to high-speed internet, but others say the figure is twice as high.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai told tribes gathered in Washington last month for a broadband workshop that the licenses could be a “game-changer,” allowing tribal members to consult online with specialists, work from home, search for jobs, start online businesses or take classes remotely.

“I’m not speculating when I say that this spectrum could deliver major benefits to rural tribal communities,” he said.

The tribal priority window closes Aug. 3.

The FCC defined rural tribal lands as being outside urbanized areas and with a population of fewer than 50,000 people.

Maps on the FCC’s website show tribes what spectrum is available over their land. The FCC staff also has been traveling across the country and meeting with tribes to explain how the licensing works.

Any tribe that receives a license must prove it is putting the spectrum to use. Licensees won’t be able to sell or transfer licenses until they make the spectrum available to 80% of the population in the license’s coverage area within five years. The licenses can be leased.

The spectrum remaining after the tribal window closes will be auctioned off for commercial use. The telecommunications company Sprint is among the largest users.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell introduced legislation last week that would ensure a portion of proceeds from a public auction of C-band spectrum would be invested in rural broadband and Next Generation 911 networks.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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