On July 31, the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) extended the Rural Tribal Priority Window for 2.5 GHz spectrum applications based on challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Commission’s press release, over 200 Tribal entities have already turned in applications for spectrum licenses. The extension grants prospective applicants an additional month to submit the requisite paperwork.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai praised the “first-ever pre-auction spectrum opportunity for Rural Tribes,” undertaken at his direction. The project, according to its website, provides a “unique opportunity for Tribes in rural areas to directly access unassigned spectrum over their Tribal lands, subject to buildout requirements.” The available band is suitable for “both mobile coverage and fixed point-to-point uses, and is currently used to provide broadband service by legacy educational licensees and commercial providers that lease the spectrum.”
The proposed coverage area must be both “rural,” meaning an area exclusive of an urban center containing more than 50,000 people, and a “Tribal land,” which includes all federally sanctioned reservations, former reservations, and Alaska Native regions. The FCC limited eligibility to federally recognized Tribes or Alaska Native Villages, associations of multiple Tribes or villages, and entities controlled by them.
In a statement, Pai commended the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau and Office of Native Affairs and Policy staff for their efforts, notably, “contacting every federally recognized Tribe and Alaskan Native Village in America directly before the window opened, participating in over 30 outreach events, [and] fielding over 780 inquiries to date.” He said that the 30-day extension “strikes an appropriate balance between providing more time for additional Tribal entities to apply and not unduly delaying the grant of licenses to those that have already applied.” Following the close of the application window, the FCC staff will process the applications and auction any unassigned 2.5 GHZ spectrum, however, the Commission did not provide a specific timeframe.
Pai acknowledged the “digital divide,” explaining that tribal communities often suffer from inadequate or nonexistent internet service. This has been a concern for legislators too. Last week, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) introduced a bill to grant total and permanent broadband spectrum license access to tribal nations on their lands. The bill was motivated in part by concern that the FCC would not extend the Rural Tribal Priority Window, and, even though it has, the bill further seeks to transfer broadband spectrum authority from the FCC to tribal communities.