FCC Creates Tribal Priority Window to License Internet Spectrum

The Federal Communications Commission created a priority window for federally recognized tribes or Alaska Natives to apply for licenses that would bring internet access to their territory. Tribes will be the first to license mid-band wireless spectrum, a largely unassigned 2.5GHz band of spectrum that is viewed as essential to the implementation and expansion of next-generation mobile technology. It is estimated that at least one-third of people on tribal lands do not have access to high-speed internet. The window will close on August 3. Tribes and tribe-owned or controlled entities, such as universities are allowed to apply for the license. Those licensing cannot use areas covered by another licensee.

In a meeting with the tribes, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai stated that internet access would be a “game changer” for tribes. It would allow them to “consult online with specialists, work from home, job search, start online businesses or take classes online.” He added, “I’m not speculating when I saw that this spectrum could deliver major benefits to rural tribal communities.”

Some believe this initiative is limited and leaves out groups that could benefit from internet access. While Native Hawaiian land is included in the effort to expand the internet to rural, tribal areas, Native Hawaiians are not allowed to apply for the license because they are not a federally recognized tribe. The Department of Hawaiian Home Lands has asked the FCC to make the spectrum accessible to them.

“This trust relationship is uniquely similar to that of federally recognized tribes and, yet, not affording Native Hawaiians a similar opportunity for access to spectrum licenses creates an inequity that is contrary to the public interest,” the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands stated.

The National Congress of American Indians has also asked the FCC to review the requirements, noting the tribal land definition and the requirement for rural surroundings. The Congress stated that tribes that do not have reservations or adjoining lands will not be allowed to apply for the license. Both groups believe these requirements will unnecessarily hinder certain groups’ ability to benefit from internet access.

Tribes that receive the license must demonstrate their use of the spectrum. Within two years of the license grant, service must be accessible to 50 percent of the population. They will not be able to sell or transfer licenses until 80 percent of the population in the access area have access; however, they may lease licenses.

After the window closes, the leftover spectrum will be auctioned for commercial use. The FCC is also making the 3.5GHz spectrum accessible to tribes for a priority access license if they wish to have an additional license for more spectrum.