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Tribal Communities Have Much to Gain in Federal Broadband Grant Developments

Two More Opportunities for Federal Grants from NTIA and USDA for Tribal Broadband

Some of the most unserved broadband areas in the Nation are Tribal lands.  One reason may be the lack of electricity in some of these areas.  Another reason may be the lack of experienced IT staff to construct, operate and maintain at the Tribe.  The lack of resources to invest in a modern broadband network may be another barrier.  Finally, like many in our nation, there are broadband adoption barriers faced by Tribal members, which include affordability of Internet service and understanding its relevance to their lives.

Major efforts are being made by the federal government to remedy this lack of broadband on Tribal lands.  I cover only a few recent developments where there are opportunities for federal grants for Tribal broadband in the near term.

First, there is a Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program (TBCP) that was put in place as part of President Biden’s Internet for All Initiative. The TBCP offers grants to eligible Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian Tribes for high speed Internet deployment, digital inclusion, workforce development, telehealth, and distance learning.   Typical broadband grants cover provision on broadband infrastructure, but the TBCP goes further will grants available for programs of digital inclusion, workforce development, telehealth and distance learning, all key initiatives for the 21st Century.

On August 9, 2022, Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information Alan Davidson of the National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA, a part of the US Department of Commerce) announced NTIA was adding another $1 billion from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) to the current TBCP funding period, closing September 1, 2022.  Previously, $980,000 was available for these grants, but the addition of another $1 billion brings the total available for award to $1.98 billion.

 “The response to our Tribal high-speed internet program demonstrated a critical need for improved connectivity on Tribal lands.  Thanks to President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, we’ll be able to award an additional billion dollars in grants in the very near future.”  Alan Davidson, Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information, NTIA.

The reason for the addition of the funds is that NTIA already received 300 applications during the current application window, totaling over $5 billion in funding requests.  This additional funding will allow NTIA to grant more of these pending applications that responded to the June 21 Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO).  If a Tribe did not submit an application under the June 21st NOFO, a Tribe has a second chance as NTIA announced a second NOFO would be issued this fall (2022) for Tribal applicants.  NTIA has been engaged in listening sessions with Tribes across the Nation and wanted to hold back the second NOFO until it had completed these consultations.

In related news, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Utilities Service (RUS) plans to reopen its ReConnect Broadband Program with $1.5 billion in grants and loans in September 2022.  These funds also were funded from the IIJA, passed last fall by Congress and signed by President Biden, with a total of $65 billion designated for broadband in rural areas. This will be the fourth round of ReConnect grants.  (Third round ReConnect applications are still being reviewed by RUS.)

USDA announced that the fourth round of ReConnect applications will be accepted from September 6, 2022 until November 7, 2022 for up to $700 million in grants, $150 million in loans, and $300 million in loan/grant combinations.  Importantly, USDA’s RUS made some changes to the prior ReConnect program rules, which include (1) requiring at least 50% of the area to be served to be rural, (2) having existing broadband speeds at 25 Mbps./3 Mbps. or lower; and (3) requiring new ReConnect grantees to build to a new 100 Mbps./100 Mbps. symmetrical broadband speed standard.  Another major change is that the usual required matching funds will be waived for Alaska Native Corp., Tribal governments and projects that serve persistent-poverty communities.  Matching funds will also be waived for broadband projects where 90% of the households lack access.


CEO & Principal at R36 Solutions

Former Commissioner, Federal Communications Commission and California Public Utilities Commission


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