Broadband on Tribal Lands

The American Indian Policy Institute recently issued a report titled Tribal Technology Assessment – The State of Internet Service on Tribal Lands. The report looks in-depth at broadband issues concerning tribal lands and reports on a survey of tribal members that is the first attempt ever of quantifying the issues of Internet access on tribal lands.

The FCC has often noted in various reports that tribal areas suffer from poor broadband. However, the FCC has been relying on the same faulty data to describe tribal lands that is used to look at rural broadband in general. The data collected from ISPs in the Form 477 process has been discredited in numerous ways, the latest being a test of the FCC data in Virginia and Missouri by USTelecom that showed that the 477 data had underestimated unserved homes by 38%. This AIPI report takes the first stab ever at understanding the real nature of broadband on tribal lands.

According to the FCC’s 2018 Broadband Progress Report, 35% of the 1.5 million people living on tribal lands lack access to 25/3 Mbps broadband, compared to 8% for the country as a whole. The older 2016 Broadband Progress Report showed that 41% of tribal lands lacked access to 25/3 Mbps compared to 10% of the whole country. Not all tribal lands are rural, and the FCC report showed that 72% of rural tribal residents in the lower 48 states lack broadband access while 33% of urban ones lack access. It showed that 70% of rural tribal lands in Alaska lack broadband access while 15% of urban areas there lack access.

The AIPI study included a survey of numerous tribal members from around the country. Following is a small sample of the responses to the survey, which are covered in more depth in the report.

  • 35% of respondents own or use a smartphone. 24% own or use a desktop or laptop computer. 16% own or use a tablet. All of these results are far lower than the US average.
  • For survey respondents with access to the internet, 36% have a connection through a telco like CenturyLink, Frontier or Windstream, 29% use a cellphone, 12% buy broadband from a cable company, six percent use satellite, and 1% still use dial-up. The rest of the respondents get access to the Internet at work, from libraries or at public hotspots.
  • Only 47% of respondents subscribe to a cellular plan, far below the 94% penetration for the country as a whole. 22% of respondents said that they have spotty access to home cellular coverage and 6% said they have no home cellphone coverage.
  • 50% of respondents said they feel limited by the broadband choices available to them.

The report makes specific recommendations for getting better broadband to tribal lands. Some of the recommendations include:

  • The FCC should earmark and prioritize some of the funding from the Universal Service Fund to solve the tribal broadband shortfalls instead of generically targeting hard-to-serve areas.
  • The RUS and USDA should identify and recommend pathways for Tribes to create rural cooperatives, consortia or creative partnerships to provide affordable broadband.
  • The FCC should prioritize spectrum licensing directly to Tribes or those who want to serve tribal lands.
  • Tribes should be allowed to challenge Form 477 data that misstates the broadband available on tribal lands.
  • Congress should provide an annual budget and provide more independence to the Office of Native Affairs and Policy at the FCC.

The report also includes numerous other recommendations for Congress, the FCC, large telcos and service providers, and tribal governments.

It’s clear that in aggregate that tribal lands are more poorly served than rural America as a whole. The report describes a broadband environment on tribal lands that lacks in both landline and cellular broadband.  I’ve seen numerous papers and articles on the topic over the years, but this report goes into more depth than anything else I’ve read on the topic.

Trusting Big ISP Data

The FCC has finally come to grips with the fact that big ISPs are supplying bad data to the various FCC mapping efforts that are then used to distribute FCC funding and to set national policies. The latest mapping snafu come from one-time data collection from the cellular carriers last year showing rural cellular coverage. These maps were to be used to establish a new federal fund called the Mobility Fund II which will distribute $4.53 billion for the expansion of 4G cellular coverage to rural parts of the country that have little or no cellular coverage.

The big cellular companies have been lying about their cellular coverage for years. If you look at the nationwide 4G LTE coverage maps from AT&T and Verizon you’d think that they have cellular coverage virtually everywhere except in areas like deserts and mountains. But anybody living or traveling in rural America knows better. It’s not hard to drive very far off main highways and hit areas that never see a bar of cellular coverage. And even where there is coverage, it’s still often 3G or even older technology.

When the FCC collected data for the Mobility II funding the big carriers stuck to this same flawed mapping data. It turns out that overclaiming rural cellular coverage will keep funding from going to the smaller cellular companies that still serve in many parts of rural America. Luckily the FCC effort included a challenge process and the FCC was flooded with challenges showing that cellular coverage is far worse than is claimed by the big carrier maps. There were so many challenges that the FCC put the Mobility II award process on hold until they can sort it out.

This is just one of the mapping efforts from the FCC that have been used to award billions of dollars of funding over the last decade. The FCC relied on mapping data from the big telcos to establish the areas that were eligible for the billions of dollars of CAF II funding.

Since rural areas served by the biggest telcos have been neglected for years, and since the big telcos deployed very little rural DSL outside of towns it’s not hard to identify huge swaths of rural areas that have little or no broadband. But the big telco broadband coverage data contains a ton of inaccuracies. For example, there are numerous smaller rural towns that are listed in the telco databases as having decent broadband, when the reality on the ground is broadband speeds of a few Mbps at best. It looks like the big telcos often reported marketing speeds rather than actual speeds. This inaccuracy has stopped others from seeking federal grants and loans to upgrade such towns.

I fear that rural broadband mapping is on the verge of the next crisis. As a blogger I am contacted a lot by folks in rural America describing their broadband situation. I’ve heard enough stories to convince me that the big telcos have made only a half-hearted effort at implementing CAF II. I think many homes that should have seen CAF II broadband upgrades will see zero upgrades while many others will get upgraded to speeds that don’t meet even the measly CAF II goal of 10/1 Mbps.

The big telcos are not likely to come clean about having pocketed CAF II funding rather than spending every penny to make upgrades, and so they are going to claim that the CAF II areas have been upgraded, regardless of the actual situation on the ground. Rural households that didn’t see the promised upgrades will then be counted by the FCC as having better broadband. That will make these areas off limits to future federal funding to fix what the telcos botched. We already see the newest federal grant programs having a new requirement that no more than 10% of the homes covered by federal funding can have broadband today. Because of the falsified mapping, many homes without broadband are going to be deemed to be covered and it will be a massive challenge for somebody else to get funding to help such areas. These communities will be harmed twice – once by the telcos that aren’t upgrading speeds and second by the inaccurate mapping that will stop others from funding assistance to fix the problem.

The big telcos and carriers have huge incentives to lie about rural broadband coverage. None of the big telcos or cellular carriers want to spend any of their own money in rural areas, but they love the revenues they are receiving by a captive rural customer base who pays high prices for poor broadband. The big companies are fighting hard to preserve these revenues, which means they don’t want anybody else to get funding to improve broadband. To make matters worse, the big telcos continue to eliminate technicians and maintenance budgets in rural America, making it nearly impossible for customers to get repairs and service.

I unfortunately don’t have any easy solution for the problem of crappy mapping. Perhaps the FCC could entertain challenges to the broadband maps in the same way they are accepting challenges in the Mobility II process. I know a number of rural communities that would make the effort to create accurate broadband maps if this might bring them better broadband.