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Kolby KickingWoman
Indian Country Today

The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated and shined a bright light on a number of issues in Indian Country, perhaps few more than the need for broadband connectivity on tribal lands.

On Thursday, the Biden administration announced it is investing in broadband and high-speed internet infrastructure, including $1 billion in grants for broadband connectivity on tribal lands.

The $1 billion was an amount determined by Congress and comes from the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and was included in the Consolidated Appropriations Act.

Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo described it as just the beginning.

“President Biden's jobs package, which he has before Congress now, calls for $100 billion which is the amount that we believe is necessary to make sure that every American has access to high speed quality broadband,” Raimondo said. “This is a down payment on that.”

Twenty-five percent of this initial $1 billion will be allocated so that every federally recognized tribe can receive up to $500,000, and Raimondo encourages tribes to apply for more.

The program will prioritize the deployment of broadband to underserved households on tribal lands, according to a news release. It also invites proposals that address the digital divide, including those related to telehealth, education and workforce development.

The distribution of the money is intended to be flexible and community driven, according to Raimondo. Different tribes have different needs and the community led effort will be vital to the success of this program.

“The way we're structuring this is purposefully flexible so that the individual community can come forward and say, ‘this is actually what we need, we need satellites and also a $500 subsidy to each household so they could pay the one time $500 to hook up their home,” she said as an example of how funds could be used.

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Raimondo said it is heartbreaking that half of households on tribal lands don’t have access to broadband and there is much work to be done. During tribal consultations, she heard stories of children needing to have assignments dropped off at their door because of the lack of broadband connectivity; as well as families having to drive hours to sit in store parking lots to borrow a connection.

“As a mother of two kids, I can't even imagine how difficult that would have been for my family,” she said.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Friday, April 23, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, echoed those sentiments in comments through her official Twitter. Haaland said the government has a responsibility to help bridge the broadband gap in Indian Country.

“Kids shouldn't have to sit outside libraries, fast food places, or other public spaces to use the wi-fi for homework. We have a responsibility to build infrastructure that will fuel economic development, keep families safe, and ensure everyone has opportunities to succeed,” Haaland wrote. “These funds through @CommerceGov are a critical step toward our collective work to promote equity, ignite job creation, and make sure Indigenous voices and businesses aren't left behind in the #digitaldivide any longer.”

Shannon Holsey, President of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians, delivered opening remarks at the announcement alongside Vice President Kamala Harris and Raimondo. She thanked the administration for listening to Native communities and addressing Indian Country’s infrastructure needs.

“Indian Country is 100 percent behind the administration and looks forward to working through a strong partnership with the Biden-Harris administration,” Holsey said. “Expanding broadband to our communities is not just a game changer - it is a life changer to tribal communities like mine and all tribal nations across the country.”

One thing that Raimondo wanted to make clear is her personal commitment to Indian Country.

“We're going to get this done and we're not going to stop until we do, because every single person deserves this basic opportunity; it's not a luxury anymore,” Raimondo said. “You know, it used to be. Now it's not, and so we have to make it happen, working together.”

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The Associated Press contributed to this report