AP/Report for America
SANTA FE, N.M. — The Federal Communications Commission has granted broadband licenses ideal for high-speed wireless internet to rural tribal governments in New Mexico, Arizona and elsewhere.
The 2.5 GHz licenses have been granted to 154 Native American communities so far, the commission announced in a statement Friday.
"Few communities face the digital connectivity challenges faced by rural tribes. By prioritizing tribal access to this mid-band spectrum, we are ensuring that tribes can quickly access spectrum to connect their schools, homes, hospitals and businesses," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said.
Around 400 applications were received in the tribal priority window after it was extended because of the coronavirus pandemic. Some were granted temporary authority, including the Navajo Nation in the Four Corners region and Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico.
More licenses could be awarded as the commission's staff continues to review and process all the applications that were filed before the deadline.
Tribes fought to be first in line to receive the latest batch of license for 2.5 GHz spectrum wireless broadcast.
The Pueblo of Zia, just northwest of Albuquerque, was among those.
"This is a great opportunity," Zia Tribal Administrator Ken Lucero said. "Although we are only 17 miles from a large metropolitan area, we do not have access to high-speed internet. The 2.5 spectrum will now give us access to broadband for our schools, clinics and the community."
The tribe's first 2.5 GHz project could be completed in the coming months, Lucero said.
Telemedicine has become more important across the Navajo Nation, which spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The tribe has been hit hard by the pandemic with disproportionately high numbers of infections and deaths.
Connectivity for remote learning also has been a big issue for tribes. In New Mexico, 55 percent of Native American students could not connect to online courses, according to a report prepared over the summer by legislative analysts.
New Mexico legislators are considering proposals to fund broadband expansion. Bills could be introduced in the January legislative session, but it's unlikely to lead to major infrastructure completion before next summer.
Tribes granted licenses by the FCC still need to raise the funds to install internet infrastructure.
"It would be great if the FCC or Congress could now follow up with funding for projects," Lucero said.