The digital divide is real and it’s widening. Nowhere is this more true than on our reservations around the country. The vast majority of those living on tribal lands have no options to access broadband internet, and the longer this problem persists, the further they get left behind.
According to data from the Federal Communications Commission’s most recent Broadband Progress Report, 65 percent of Montanans living on tribal land have no access to broadband internet. Compare that to only 4 percent of Americans in urban areas who do not have broadband access.
Native Americans on reservations are twice as underserved for broadband access as other rural Americans, and are 16 times more likely to be underserved than their urban counterparts.
Having no broadband access is an unfortunate fact of life in many rural areas of Montana, but Native Americans are disproportionately underserved. The FCC concludes in its Progress Report that “rural areas and Tribal lands are being left behind.”
What does that mean to be “left behind”? It means our children — kindergarten through college — don’t have the same educational opportunities that other Americans have. Many are not receiving the training they need to be prepared for tomorrow’s job market.
Lack of broadband access means that Native Americans don’t have the same opportunity to access healthcare. It means they don’t have access to job opportunities and entrepreneurial opportunities that require a broadband connection.
As our world becomes increasingly connected in the future, those left out are left at a disadvantage in ways we can’t even imagine today.
Closing the digital divide is one of the most important challenges facing Indian Country today. There’s no easy fix, especially considering that our reservations are in some of the most remote and sparsely populated areas of the country.
But one solution that needs a serious look is the new technology known as TV white spaces. This refers to delivering broadband internet over the airwaves on un-utilized television spectrum. TV white spaces signals can travel four times further than existing LTE wireless, and are not obstructed by hills, buildings, or trees. In other words, TV white spaces can reach just about anywhere that broadcast television reaches today.
TV white spaces have been successfully tested over the last decade — the problem now is that regulatory delays have held up its commercial application. While the FCC has given initial regulatory approval for testing, it has fallen short of finalizing the rules that would allow this technology to be brought to market.
What is needed is for the FCC to ensure that at least three channels below 700 MHz — the TV white spaces — are available for wireless use on an unlicensed basis in every market in the country, with additional TV white spaces available in smaller markets and rural areas.
TV white spaces aren’t the end all and be all. There will likely be rural areas of the country that it cannot reach. However, a recent analysis from Microsoft estimates that the technology has the potential to deliver broadband internet to 80 percent of the existing underserved population.
It’s time for the FCC to move. The digital divide grows by the day, especially in Indian Country. No one should be left out of the advantages brought by access to broadband — it’s in our power to solve this problem, so let’s get it done.
You can learn more about TV white spaces and find ways to advocate for increasing broadband access by visiting ConnectAmericansNow.com.
State Sen. Jason Small, of Busby, represents Senate District 21. He serves on the Senate Energy and Telecommunications Committee.