In a report released Wednesday, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) could do more to expand broadband access on tribal lands. The GAO offered three recommendations to the FCC, which the agency agreed with.
Currently, there is a significant discrepancy between broadband access on tribal lands and elsewhere in the United States. According to GAO’s 2018 estimates, 35 percent of Americans living on tribal lands do not have access to broadband services–compared to 8 percent of Americans overall.
One of the key barriers to broadband access is access to spectrum licenses, the report found. Currently, tribal leaders can obtain spectrum licenses in one of two ways, either through an FCC spectrum auction or through secondary market transactions. On top of using licensed spectrum, tribes can also use unlicensed spectrum. However, GAO explained that “licensed spectrum is generally preferred because it offers better quality of service compared to unlicensed spectrum.” Though the quality may be better, “almost all of the tribal entities GAO contacted said that they are accessing unlicensed spectrum to provide Internet service,” GAO explained. In terms of barriers to acquiring licensed spectrum, the tribes cited high costs and, in the case of secondary market transactions, a lack of information on who holds licenses over tribal lands. Additionally, GAO explained that “because most spectrum allocated for commercial use has already been assigned, the secondary market is one of very few avenues available to tribal entities that would like to access licensed spectrum.”
With all of that in mind, GAO urged the FCC to improve access to broadband spectrum for tribal lands. GAO does note that the “FCC has taken steps to promote and support tribal access to spectrum,” including proposing new rules in 2011 and 2018 that would improve access to licenses. However, the FCC never finalized those rules. Additionally, GAO found that the FCC hasn’t “collected data related to tribal access to spectrum, analyzed unused licensed spectrum that exists over tribal lands, or made data available to tribal entities in an accessible and easy manner that could be beneficial in their efforts to obtain spectrum licenses from other providers.”
In its report, GAO recommended the FCC take three steps to improve broadband access on tribal lands. First, the FCC needs to collect accurate data on tribal access to spectrum. GAO noted that by doing so, the FCC “could better understand tribal spectrum issues and use this information as it implements ongoing spectrum initiatives.” Second, the FCC needs to “analyze unused licensed spectrum over tribal lands.” This would enable the FCC to “promote a more robust secondary market” and it could use that data to inform its “oversight of the secondary market.” Finally, the GAO suggested the FCC should remove a barrier currently facing tribal nations by “make information available in a more accessible manner that would promote tribes’ ability to purchase or lease spectrum licenses over their lands from other providers.” The GAO also noted that the FCC agreed with all of the recommendations offered.