FCC extends deadline for Native American tribes’ internet expansion

Flagstaff, Ariz. • The Federal Communications Commission is giving tribes another month to apply for a band of wireless spectrum that would help them establish or expand internet access on their land.

Tribes pushed to be first in line to apply for licenses for the mid-band spectrum that is largely unassigned across the western United States and once was reserved for educational institutions. The tribal priority window opened in February and was set to close Monday. It's now been extended to Sept. 2.

The extra time is far less than what tribes and tribal organizations had sought as they struggle to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

The FCC said the extension “strikes an appropriate balance” in giving tribes more time to apply but not delaying licenses to those that already applied.

“In light of the simplified application process as well as the extensive outreach done by commission staff, a lengthy extension of the deadline is unnecessary, as evidenced by the large number of applications we’ve already received,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

The FCC has estimated that about one-third of people living on tribal lands don’t have access to high-speed internet, but others say the figure is twice as high.

Nearly 230 tribes or tribal entities have submitted applications for the 2.5 GHz spectrum. Some have been granted temporary authority, including the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, the Navajo Nation in the Four Corners region and Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico.

In its request, the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe said it was preparing for students to do more remote learning in the fall and planned to use the temporary license to connect about 40 homes to the tribe's network.

The National Congress of American Indians was among those asking the FCC to give tribes more time to apply because of the coronavirus pandemic, saying hundreds could miss out on the opportunity. Some urged the FCC on Friday to reconsider its decision.

“Even before COVID-19 and despite the commission’s efforts to simplify the application process and provide staff resources, even the six months provided for the tribal window would be a tight schedule for outreach and filing complete applications,” the group wrote in asking for an extension until February.

The spectrum remaining after the tribal window closes will be auctioned off for commercial use. Telecommunications company T-Mobile said it didn’t object to an extension of the tribal priority window for up to 90 days but wanted assurance that a public auction would happen next year.