Bold Business Logo
Close this search box.

Expanding Broadband Access in Indian Country

broadband infrastructure funding digital explosion image

The nation’s America Rescue Plan Act has received a great deal of attention as of late. A core component of this act involves its Internet for All programs designed to enhance the country’s digital infrastructure. The act contains several programs that provide broadband infrastructure funding to achieve these objectives. While many people have heard of the Broadband Equity and Access Deployment (BEAD) Program, there are others. One of note is the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Plan that strives to improve tribal broadband access. Indian country has noted gaps in broadband coverage, and it reflects perhaps the greatest digital divide. As such, tribal needs for broadband development tend to be much greater than other regions.

some dude doing broadband infrastructure funding work
Broadband infrastructure funding is helping the world grow more connected.

(Infrastructure bills are bridging the digital divide–read more in this Bold story.)

The Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program has provided a significant amount of funding toward these efforts. Nearly a billion dollars was provided for tribal lands with initial launch in hopes this would improve the situation. But as it turned out, this amount of broadband infrastructure funding for tribal lands was significant insufficient. As such, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has expanded available funds. But even with these increases, it remains questionable whether equitable tribal broadband access can be attained. In order to make this a potential reality, tribal leaders will need to be both savvy and influential. It remains to be seen if these efforts will be enough to actually achieve Internet for all.

“This is our generation’s big infrastructure moment. This is our chance to connect everyone in America with the tools they need to thrive in the modern digital economy.” – Alan Davidson, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information

A Long Way to Catch Up

A major part of the problem involving tribal broadband access relates to foundational problems in these regions. As of 2020, roughly 18% of tribal households lacked access to Internet completely. And in terms of broadband access, more than a third of homes lacked such services. Understandably, these statistics demonstrate that an increased amount of broadband infrastructure funding would be required. But this is further complicated by the fact that tribal lands cover sizable areas of rural lands. Estimates in 2016 suggested over 8,000 miles of fiber would be required to achieve comprehensive tribal broadband access.

These issues have plagued tribal lands for many years. However, these problems became an even bigger issue during the pandemic. As COVID struck, the world shifted to digital and online platforms. Educational classes were being held virtually for these students with many lacking access. In addition, many jobs went to remote working, and healthcare clinics adopted telemedicine platforms for patient care. Initial estimates for achieving tribal broadband access before the pandemic totaled $7-8 billion. Post-COVID, these figures now reach as high as $11 billion. Rising construction costs and more expensive materials account for these increases, further making it difficult. These issues highlight the importance of tribal broadband funding presently.

a dude frustrated over his Internet access
Nothing is more frustrating than poor Internet access, so this will make a lot of Native Americans happy.

“With COVID, lack of computer chips, lack of production of fiber and conduit equipment, and the escalation of construction prices, you now have an escalated price range. You’re looking at a much bigger problem.” – Matthew Rantanen, Vice President of Golden State Network

Current Tribal Broadband Funding

As noted, the initial broadband infrastructure funding through the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program was $980 million. But it quickly became evident that this would not adequate. Subsequent proposals to achieved Internet for all across tribal lands $5.8 billion. This prompted the NTIA to raise funding to $1.98 billion. And in recent weeks, they have since added another $980 million, making the total just shy of $3 billion. Certainly, this is positive news in the pursuit of tribal broadband access for everyone. But everyone, including the NTIA, realizes this will be insufficient to achieve the overall goals.

While there are no immediate plans to advance tribal infrastructure funding further, the NTIA does have a strategy. Specifically, they have encouraged tribal leaders to pursue state grants under the BEAD Program. The BEAD Program is separate from tribal infrastructure funding programs and provides each state $42.5 billion. This money is distributed by states to sub-grantees based on broadband infrastructure needs. And because tribal broadband access is usually among the most in-need areas, these funds may also be available to tribes. Of course, there is a great deal of competition when it comes to securing BEAD Program money. Historically, tribal areas tend to have a disadvantage in such situations.

“Tribal governments need to be prepared to approach the state with a data-driven argument about what coverage data is not included in the state map and what changes need to be made.” – Joe Valandra, CEO of Tribal Ready

Incremental Gains, Hopeful Results

tribal broadband access being worked on
The expansion of tribal broadband access will serve to connect a broad range of people.

Understandably, the broadband infrastructure funding under current direct provisions will not be enough. But progress will be made with these supports. In addition to the network infrastructure that these grants advance, they also go to support other programs. Specifically, Internet use adoption programs are also funded by these monies to advance tribal broadband access. For example, funds will go toward monthly subsidies for low-income tribal households to pay for network providers. Laptops will also be available for some with low-income needs. At the current time, the NTIA has extended applications for funding for these purposes through the end of the year. This will certainly improve the current access statistics throughout tribal lands even if Internet for all is not achieved.

Further gains, however, will require tribal leaders to convince state policymakers that they need additional supports. In most instances, state use Internet access data maps to determine which regions will receive BEAD Program funding. Historically, tribal areas are usually under-represented in these data maps, which negatively affects them. As such, tribal leaders will need to provide state decision-makers with more accurate assessments. This is their best bet to receive additional broadband infrastructure funding to achieve their objectives. These strategies as well as collaboration among tribal groups will be key in making as much progress as possible. But either way, the digital divide and landscape for tribal regions will improve with recent changes. If nothing else, these programs will provide an essential step in the right direction.


Affirmative Action is dying on the vine in education, but when will it hit the workplace? Read up on it in this Bold story.

Don't miss out!

The Bold Wire delivers our latest global news, exclusive top stories, career
opportunities and more.

Thank you for subscribing!