Heinrich, Hoeven, Luján, Mullin, Leger Fernández Introduce Bipartisan Legislation to Increase Access to High-Speed Internet for Tribal Communities

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), John Hoeven (R-N.D.), Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), and Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) introduced the bipartisan Tribal Connect Act to make it easier for Tribes to secure high-speed internet access at Tribal Essential Community-Serving Institutions through the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Universal Service Fund (USF) Schools and Libraries Program, or E-rate program. U.S. Representative Leger Fernández introduced the companion legislation in the House.    

The FCC established the E-rate program in 1996 with the goal to equip schools and libraries with broadband support, so that every child in the United States has access to internet through their local schools and libraries. However, many Tribal communities do not have a library or, if they do, it does not meet the FCC’s definition. Thus, Tribes have historically missed out on being eligible for this critical federal program. The Tribal Connect Act improves the E-rate program by creating an avenue for Tribes without libraries to designate a Tribal Essential Community-Serving Institution, such as a community or all-purpose center or Chapter house, as eligible for the E-rate program.     

“Access to reliable, high-speed internet is a necessity for students working on their homework assignments, families who need access to telehealth services, and the responsibilities of everyday life. But right now, many Tribes in New Mexico lack access to this essential service,” said Heinrich.” That’s why I am proud to reintroduce the bipartisan Tribal Connect Act to steer much-needed federal broadband funding to Tribal libraries, Chapter houses, and community centers in Indian Country to close the digital divide. Every child, no matter where they live or go to school, should have the tools they need to succeed in the 21st century.”    

“The Tribal Connect Act will help improve access to affordable, high-speed internet in tribal communities in North Dakota and across the country,” said Hoeven. “Greater access to these services will improve educational opportunities for students and teachers, boost economic growth and increase the quality of life in these communities.”  

“A reliable internet connection in today’s age is non-negotiable and for too long, the digital divide has limited opportunities on Tribal lands,” said Luján, Chair of the Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband. “I’m proud to join my colleagues in reintroducing this bipartisan legislation that delivers critical funding and technical assistance to help connect libraries and anchor institutions on Tribal lands. As our work to close the digital divide continues, this legislation will help move New Mexico closer to 100% connectivity by increasing high-speed internet in Tribal communities.”  

“More than half of individuals living on rural Tribal land don’t have access to high-speed internet,” said Mullin. “Due to this lack of access, Tribal students and community members are finding themselves significantly behind the digital curve. The Tribal Connect Act aims to remove barriers to E-rate program grants and provide Tribal schools and libraries a better opportunity to obtain more affordable, more reliable internet. I’m glad to join my colleagues on this legislation to equip Tribal communities with necessary broadband access.” 

“Tribal communities have gone too long without access to affordable and reliable broadband. I’ve listened to tribes describe how lack of broadband blocks out opportunity. They know best about where internet is needed the most. Today I am introducing the Tribal Connect Act to make sure Tribes can choose the institutions that need federal funds for broadband, instead of limiting it just to libraries and schools. The bill will provide high-speed internet at diverse Tribal community centers. Access to broadband is essential for creating opportunities in education, healthcare, and businesses. We must keep Tribal communities connected.” said Leger Fernández, Chair of the Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States.  

“I am excited to continue bridging the digital divide for Tribes in my beautiful and diverse district and around the country. I am grateful to Senators Heinrich and Luján for introducing the companion bill in the Senate. We must continue to act so that every corner of New Mexico is connected.” concluded Leger Fernández.  

Specifically, the Tribal Connect Act of 2023 would:   

  • Establish a Tribal Essential Community-Serving Institution Pilot Program to ensure Tribes without libraries can designate a Native-owned public institution, such as a community or all-purpose center, as eligible to apply for USF support from a $300 million fund over three years to provide high-speed internet access to students, teachers and the community within the facility.   
  • Provide technical assistance to Tribes to help ensure that Native schools, libraries, and qualifying essential community-serving institutions can fully participate in universal service programs and E-rate. This includes targeted outreach, specific training programs, and direct federal grants. The bill authorizes $50 million in appropriations for these purposes.   
  • Require the FCC to develop performance goals and measures to track progress on achieving the strategic objective of the Commission of ensuring that all Tribes have affordable high-speed internet access and telecommunications services.     
  • Increase resources for technical assistance by appointing a Tribal representative to the USF board of directors and expanding USF offices that provide application support.    

According to a 2021 National Tribal Broadband Strategy report by the U.S. Department of Interior, while over 99% of the population in urban areas has access to broadband service meeting a high-speed threshold, only approximately 65% of the population on rural Tribal lands have the same access as of the end of 2019.     

In July 2023, the FCC finalized its rule to update the definition of “library” in the Commission’s rules to include Tribal libraries, and increased participation of underrepresented Tribal libraries in the E-Rate Program. This update mirrored provisions in previous versions of the Tribal Connect Act. This legislation continues to build off of this momentum.     

The bipartisan Tribal Connect Act has received the support of the American Libraries Association (ALA), All Pueblo Council of Governors (APCG), Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association (GPTCA), National Indian Education Association (NIEA), Navajo Nation, Public Knowledge, NDN Collective, National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), and Alaska Native Federation of Natives (AFN).    

Find a copy of the full bill text HERE.    



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