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How the Tribal Connectivity Program Strives to Achieve Digital Equity for Native Communities

In March of 2024, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) studied the country's deployment of high-speed internet services. It determined that these services are not yet being deployed fast enough to help Americans reach high-speed broadband service standards previously established by the FCC. Additionally, the study found that communities living in rural areas and on Tribal lands were in more urgent need of these service upgrades. Specifically, as of December 2022, the Commission found that “Fixed terrestrial broadband service (excluding satellite) has not been physically deployed to approximately 24 million Americans, including almost 28% of Americans in rural areas, and more than 23% of people living on Tribal lands” (FCC Media Relations, 2024).” In simpler terms, 24 million Americans do not have access to stable, long-term, high-speed broadband networks, and many of these broadband-underserved communities are rural and/or exist on Tribal lands. This could mean they rely on hot spots, wireless phone data, spotty satellite internet services, or Wi-Fi at community centers such as libraries for online tasks.


In 2024, not having reliable internet access in your home can severely limit your opportunities for success in various fields. This gap in opportunities is often called the digital divide, and the ultimate goal of National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) grant programs is to bridge this divide and reach true digital equity.



Photo of a rural Navajo settlement
How the Tribal Connectivity Program Strives to Achieve Digital Equity for Native Communities

To meet this need for reliable broadband, the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) has rolled out grant programs such as the $42 billion Broadband Equity And Deployment (BEAD) to fund the installation of high-speed broadband infrastructure for rural and remote areas and the $3 billion Tribal Connectivity Program (TBCP) program to improve internet services on Tribal lands drastically. The TBCP program specifically aims to build improved broadband infrastructure and also provide households with the necessary equipment, such as computers and Wi-Fi hotspots, taking a comprehensive approach to connecting Tribal communities.


In our increasingly digital economy, access to reliable and fast internet services is quickly becoming a necessity, not a luxury. In a study conducted by Cox Communications earlier this year, 86% of respondents in underserved areas who recently upgraded to high-speed internet said that the services improved their lives (Weinschenk, 2024). Gaining access to new work, schooling, health, and social opportunities can unlock a world of possibilities for communities that were historically broadband underserved or unserved entirely.


While it’s difficult to determine the exact number of Native Americans who live on tribal lands and must make do with inadequate broadband services, it’s safe to estimate that the TBCP will ultimately impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of Natives and play a large part in helping Native communities achieve digital equity. Programs like BEAD, TBCP, and others aim to provide high-speed broadband services to every American citizen, prioritizing those living in historically broadband-neglected areas. These improved networks and services can lead to significant quality-of-life changes through increasing access to telehealth services, remote work opportunities, flexible online schooling options, and more.


Father and son at computer
How the Tribal Connectivity Program Strives to Achieve Digital Equity for Native Communities

These opportunities provided by high-speed broadband should be available to everyone and are even more crucial for marginalized communities who may already be disadvantaged in our society due to historical discrimination. The more people have access to stable, reliable, high-speed internet, the more avenues there are to improve their access to financial, educational, health-related, and even recreational opportunities. Remote work opportunities can help increase total household incomes, online learning programs can provide more flexible educational opportunities for both children and adults, and telehealth appointments can help busy families make time for doctor’s visits when their access may have been limited in the past. Through achieving digital equity and bridging the digital divide, we can take a substantial step toward providing ample opportunities for success. While bridging the digital divide is certainly not a panacea for inequity, it provides a foundation and precedent for other large-scale systemic moves aimed at evening the economic playing field in our nation.


Sources:

[1] FCC INCREASES BROADBAND SPEED BENCHMARK. (2024, March 14). Federal Communications Commission | The United States of America. Retrieved March 18, 2024, from https://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-increases-broadband-speed-benchmark

 

[2] Weinschenk, C. (2024, February 2). Impact Report: When Broadband Comes to Rural Areas, Young People Are More Likely to Stay. Telecompetitor. https://www.telecompetitor.com/impact-report-when-broadband-comes-to-rural-areas-young-people-are-more-likely-to-stay/#:~:text=Seventy%2Dthree%20percent%20of%20responding,reported%20by%2080%25%20of%20respondents

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