Senator Introduces Native Broadband Spectrum Ownership Bill

On July 27, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) announced the introduction of a first-of-its-kind bill that would grant tribal nations and native Hawaiian organizations total and permanent access to broadband spectrum licenses on their lands. According to the Senator’s press release, the Deploying the Internet by Guaranteeing Indian Tribes Autonomy over Licensing (DIGITAL) Reservations Act would increase tribal nation autonomy and eliminate dependency on the current privately provided broadband wireless access that, according to Warren, is unacceptably deficient.

The bill comes after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) “refused to extend the Rural Tribal Priority Window to apply for 2.5GHz spectrum over Tribal lands beyond August 3rd amidst the global pandemic.” If the DIGITAL Reservations Act receives legislative approval, the bill would remove control from the FCC’s hands and prevent the agency from selling spectrum rights without tribal nation consent. The bill would also create an FCC Tribal Broadband Fund, to “immediately deploy life-saving wireless services,” and move closer to the ultimate goal of tribal nation self-governance.

According to Warren’s press release, approximately 1.5 million people living on tribal lands lack access to basic internet service. Yet, tribal nations can do little to resolve the problem for their constituents, some of whom live in geographically isolated parts of the country.

Several disadvantages impact connection-less tribal communities, like “lack of access to life-saving digital services that can address the missing and murdered Indigenous women crisis and youth suicide, education and employment opportunities, and telehealth services.” According to Warren, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored this disparity, leaving tribal nations with disproportionately high viral infection rates and inadequate resources to cope with the disease’s spread.

In a statement, Rep. Haaland said that “[c]onnectivity is key to ensuring Native Americans have access to education resources, telehealth, and public safety, but Native Americans living on reservations have been left behind.” She noted that the bill would help ensure that native communities, “aren’t stuck in the digital divide.”

The bill’s co-sponsor, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), contended that Native American “communities should have permanent access to available and unlicensed electromagnetic spectrum over their lands.” In the same statement, the Senator remarked on how critical the timing is, citing the trends of “schools pursu[ing] online instruction and more health care providers offer[ing] telehealth options.”

Sovereign native nations, businesses, organizations, and human rights groups have also welcomed the introduction of the DIGITAL Reservations Act. The list of supporters, supplied by Senator Warren, includes over two dozen tribes and many more tribal organizations.

The bill is part of a larger effort from legislators to end the “Reservation Era,” perceived by the lawmakers as outdated and out of touch with the realities of tribal life. The lack of sovereignty over wireless connectivity rights renders tribal lands “digital reservations,” according to Senator Warren. The DIGITAL Reservations Act would help end failed “Reservation Era” policies, some of which originated in the late 1800s, by creating total and permanent broadband wireless access rights and stripping the FCC of its power to sell tribal spectrum resources without consultation and consent.