The DIGITAL Reservations Act: A Practical Answer to Tribal Connectivity Today

Yesterday, Congresswoman Deb Haaland and Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced the DIGITAL Reservations Act, a bill which ends the current Federal Communications Commission (FCC) practice of selling wireless spectrum rights on the lands of Indian Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations and grants ownership, management, and governance of all spectrum to those groups in perpetuity. The bill also calls for the creation of an FCC fund to support broadband efforts, an advisory team to provide regulatory and technical assistance, and a data collection program to support future connectivity efforts in those communities. It represents a dramatic new approach to addressing the digital divide in Tribal communities, which remain among the least well-connected of all across the United States today.

Breaking Down the Bill

The Deploying the Internet by Guaranteeing Indian Tribes Autonomy over Licensing on Reservations Act [pdf] offers significant investment in a multi-pronged approach. It’s driven by twin impulses. From the bill

To date, the [Federal Communications] Commission has failed to implement nationwide spectrum opportunities or uniform licensing for Indian Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations to make spectrum available over their Tribal lands or account for the unmet needs of native Nations in compliance with the Federal trust responsibility.

The Commission’s actions parallel failed Federal Reservation Era policy that divided Indian land holdings and created systemic barriers to Indian Tribes’ economic development and legal jurisdictional complications on Tribal lands that continue to disadvantage Tribal communities today.

The bill takes significant steps in outlining the new ownership framework. If enacted, it eliminates future spectrum auctions over Tribal and Native Hawaiian lands. To address existing partnerships with Internet Service Providers (ISPs), the bill also provides a process to ensure that existing third-party licensees “build or divest” their networks currently in use over these territories. 

In addition, the bill directs the FCC to establish a Tribal Broadband Fund much like the existing Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, paid for through the spectrum auctions it already administers in addition to the universal service access fees it collects. It notes that just three-quarters of one percent of FCC funds awarded were spent on Tribal broadband projects from 2010-2017. 

It also creates an FCC Office of Native Affairs and Policy (ONAP) to assist Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations in meeting technical standards to develop wireless networks and the supporting fiber infrastructure, and assist in getting access to the freed-up spectrum over their lands. 

Finally, the bill directs the FCC to collect data and submit an annual report to Congress on broadband access and connectivity efforts for these groups in order to continue expansion efforts moving forward.

Rectifying Failed Policy and Systemic Barriers

Over fifty groups have already signed on as supporters, included a dozen Tribal nations and organizations like the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Public Knowledge, the ACLU of New Mexico, and the National Indian Health Board. 

The DIGITAL Reservatiosn Act comes at an important time. On August 3rd, the Rural Tribal Priority Window (RTPW)— which provides for Tribes to apply for licenses to 2.5Ghz spectrum over their lands — closes, and thus far the FCC has declined to extend it despite calls from many for more time. The situation is particularly pressing during the pandemic, when telehealth, emergency services, and distance education remain significant obstacles for communities all around the United States. 


Current data shows, for instance, that while across the country 8% of Americans don’t have Internet access at 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload, on Tribal lands that number jumps to 35%. Further, 75% of rural Indian Health Service facilities do not have the connection needed for telehealth, and up to 95% of students in one survey reported not having residential Internet service.

"Tribal nations have long proven that when they have the opportunity to govern and manage their own resources, tribal communities are stronger, economies more robust and people thrive. We support giving tribes autonomy over spectrum licensing and encourage more dedicated funding for deploying critical infrastructure and improving access for citizens living throughout Indian Country. As this pandemic has proven, the time for change is now," wrote Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr., Cherokee Nation in support of the measure.

So far, progress at connecting Indigenous communities has been slow. GAO reports in 2018 [pdf] and 2020 [pdf], the U.S. Civil Rights Commission’s 2018 Broken Promises Report [pdf], and an American Indian Policy Institute report in 2019 [pdf] have all highlighted the consequences of entrenched and systemic barriers to connectivity. 

Unfortunately, Tribes face a unique set of obstacles in solving their communities’ connectivity problems. The current process means that in bidding for wireless spectrum they compete against huge ISPs with vastly larger amounts of capital and numbers of personnel with technical expertise. And, because they are so poorly connected, they have trouble getting timely access to the information necessary in order to remedy these problems.

The Digital Reservations Act acknowledges this host of issues as a shortcoming of federal policy thus far. 

Looking Ahead

Collectively, these measures address the largest obstacles to getting these communities connected and ensure that no matter what the future of healthcare, education, and business look like moving forward, they can rely on a more level playing field to ensure the health and prosperity of their citizens.

For more on this topic, listen to Christopher talk with Matt Rantanen, Director of Technology at the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association on Episode 362 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Or, hear his conversation with Mariel Triggs and Edyael Casaperalta from MuralNet in Episodes 393. 

Read the full bill or see the One Pager below.

Image of Cibecue, Fort Apache reservation settlement in Arizona by Phillip Capper from Wellington, New Zealand [CC BY 2.0]