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Lawmakers Push FCC For More Movement On Tribal Broadband

Steve Daines talks about the issue of broadband the tribes are facing
Screengrab courtesy of Senator Steve Daines' staff
Montana Senator Steve Daines during his testimony at a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing on tribal broadband on September 18, 2019.

Lawmakers and tribal representatives urged the Federal Communications Commission to do more to expand broadband access in Indian Country this week. 

About half of tribal lands in Montana don’t have access to broadband. That’s internet fast enough to use on your smartphone and stream movies. The Government Accountability Office says the Federal Communications Commision isn’t doing enough to expand access. That was the major takeaway from a hearing for the Senate Indian Affairs Committee this week.

"We must take actionable steps to improve opportunities for these very underserved areas that are hamstrung by substandard wireless as well as broadband connections," Republican Senater Steve Daines of Montana said. 

Montana’s other Senator, Democrat Jon Tester, wasn’t able to testify Wednesday because of a conflicting vote.

Fort Peck Tribal Chairman Floyd Azure says his constituents have been pressing him to increase broadband coverage.

"Everybody wants it, even my wife, she loves her phone. I don’t think she goes any place without it," Azure said. 

Verizon announced it would end service in parts of northeastern Montana earlier this year.

Azure says his work phone is Verizon, and it still works, but there are dead spots throughout the reservation. That includes a stretch of U.S. Highway 2 that’s a dead zone for his work phone and his personal one, which is covered through local provider Nemont.

"We’re looking at tribal ownership because we’re not getting any help from any place else, so we’re going to have to do it ourselves," Azure said.

Azure says the Tribes could fix dead zones that a commercial carrier like Verizon might not be financially incentivized to.

Just 18 out of 573 federally recognized tribes hold licenses to provide broadband. That includes the Blackfeet Tribe, the only tribal nation in Montana with a licence for high-speed wireless internet.

The GAO report says that the FCC should expand leasing options for broadband signals and data collection on tribal lands.