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Broadband cut worries tribes

WASHINGTON – There are no places in America less connected to the Internet than many portions of Indian country. Yet, tribal advocates fear recent cuts to federal broadband funding could prevent telecommunications growth in their communities before it has a chance to start.

The concern stems from a recent congressional maneuver that moved more than $300 million in stimulus funding that was supposed to be spent on broadband initiatives to pay for unrelated education-focused legislation.

The cut comes out of the National Telecommunications & Information Administration’s $4.7 billion budget for broadband stimulus grants.

Given that many tribes are currently waiting to hear whether they have been awarded broadband grants under the program, the reduced funding comes at a very bad time.

“It’s a big concern,” said Joe Valandra, a Rosebud tribal consultant who is assisting Native American players in establishing successful telecommunications endeavors. “The chances of tribal communities falling short on broadband certainly went back up.”

NTIA had awarded $1.2 billion as of mid-August, and it must dole out its remaining funds from its reduced pot by the end of September.

Heather Dawn Thompson, a partner with Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal who assists several tribes on broadband matters, said the pressure is on for the Obama administration to combat the well-known digital divide facing rural Indian communities.

“There have been a few positive funding developments under the stimulus plan, but not nearly as many as tribes had hoped. We hope the Obama administration follows through on their commitment to connect those with the least access in America.”

Thompson said that if more tribes don’t get funded, it is not for lack of trying. All Montana tribes, some of which are her clients, have applied in a historic joint effort, yet haven’t been funded.

During an Aug. 18 conference call with reporters, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who oversees a large chunk of broadband stimulus funding, repeated his support for Indian country broadband endeavors, but he did not elaborate on whether much more tribal funding could be expected by the end of September.

The overwhelming majority of Vilsack’s funding announcements to date have focused on non-tribal entities, although it’s widely accepted that tribes have the greatest need.

Tribal officials estimate that approximately 70 tribes and tribal entities have applied for the current round of broadband funding. About seven have received funding, and no new tribes that haven’t previously made some progress in the field have been funded. Four received grants in the first round of funding.

“If it doesn’t happen with these funds, I guarantee you it’s not going to happen for 20 years,” Valandra said. “Unfortunately, this is as good as we’re going to have it for awhile with Congress focused on cutting funds across the budget.”

Valandra said non-stimulus broadband funding could always be designated for tribes in the future, but that route has long been a difficult one due to policy decisions that have traditionally penalized some tribes.

Madonna Yawakie, president of Turtle Island Communications Inc., noted that resources have been available since 1949 for tribes in this arena, but federal policy has hampered real growth.

“It gets disconcerting,” she said, noting that she has helped several tribal entities apply for stimulus broadband funding – to little avail thus far.

“We send in strong, solid applications that stand up to the best of them. We just need fairness in the consideration of tribal applications.”

Yawakie wants tribes to make a final push before the Sept. 30 deadline, with tribal officials informing USDA and other broadband funders of the economic impact tribal players can have on the nation’s overall prosperity.