Cantwell Highlights Broadband Connectivity Needs of Washington State Tribes, Calls on Committee to Address Tribal Digital Divide as Indian Affairs Committee Considers Legislation

WASHINGTON, D.C. – At a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) stressed the importance of closing the Tribal digital divide, highlighting the broadband connectivity needs of Washington state Tribes and calling the issue one of her “top priorities.” Cantwell also urged the Committee to pass the Bridging the Tribal Digital Divide Act of 2020, legislation she co-sponsored with Senator Tom Udall (D-NM), the Vice Chairman of the Committee, which would improve coordination across federal broadband programs, make it easier for Tribes to deploy broadband, and set aside 5% of the FCC’s broadband deployment funds for Tribes to build out broadband in Indian Country.

Cantwell highlighted the broadband connectivity challenges faced by Tribes in Washington state, which have been exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Cantwell also stressed how broadband services are even more important in the face of the recent wildfires, as some families without connectivity are unable to receive emergency service and evacuation notifications.

“The COVID pandemic has exacerbated the harms caused by the lack of broadband, leaving many communities without the ability to participate in online learning or telehealth. These Tribes in our state are very concerned about this, members of the Hoh Tribe located on the Pacific coast essentially have no—have had to ration their internet use. In the past, members of different Tribes would wait until the children went to school to even send things as basic as email, because of the extraordinarily low speeds,” Cantwell said.

“For the Colville Tribe in North Central Washington, many of the households don’t have access to the internet. This means many of the households don’t have access to emergency service notifications. Connectivity is critically important during fire season, especially this year as fires have forced evacuations from homes and businesses. It’s absolutely unacceptable for these Tribes, and many others living on Tribal lands throughout the state of Washington, to not have access to basic, reliable broadband,” she continued.

Less than half of households on Tribal lands have access to fixed broadband service, according to the FCC. This represents a nearly 27-point gap compared to non-Tribal rural areas. This gap only widens when compared to the countrywide average—in 2018, the FCC estimated that 35 percent of Americans living on Tribal lands lacked access to broadband services, compared to eight percent of all Americans.

Senator Cantwell has long championed efforts to end the digital divide and has stressed the need for comprehensive broadband infrastructure to support telehealth and other critical services. Just last week, Cantwell urged the FCC to use its existing authority to ensure universal service and to improve Tribal communities’ access to critical services during the COVID-19 pandemic including telemedicine, online education, and teleworking opportunities. In May, Cantwell urged the FCC to ensure that rural Tribal communities had adequate time and equitable opportunity to apply for spectrum for broadband services and mobile coverage. Since the pandemic began, Cantwell has announced more than $6.6 million in funding for telehealth services to health care entities throughout Washington state. And in January, Cantwell introduced bipartisan legislation to ensure that billions of dollars from a public auction of C-Band spectrum will be used to invest in bridging the digital divide and enabling next-generation public safety services.