Update on Tribal Broadband Funding Opportunities

Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck

Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck

The past several months have seen a number of new funding opportunities for the deployment, adoption and affordability of broadband services on tribal lands. This alert provides a quick update on these various opportunities.

Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program

Last December’s Consolidated Appropriations Act (CAA) appropriated $1 billion for grants for the deployment of broadband on tribal lands and expanded access to remote learning, telework and telehealth resources. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which will oversee the program, plans to release a notice of funding opportunity this spring. This notice will contain details regarding the program and how to apply, and will trigger a 90-day window in which to file applications. Tribes interested in applying should be developing project plans. NTIA held several days of consultations with tribes and held a webinar on this and other broadband programs established by the CAA. It will hold another webinar on April 21. More information can be found on NTIA’s BroadbandUSA website.

Emergency Broadband Benefit Program

The CCA also established a $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit Program to help eligible households pay for internet access services offered by participating broadband providers. The program will provide up to $75 per month for households on tribal lands, $50 for eligible households in other areas. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has issued an order implementing the program, which is available here. The FCC announced that more than 200 broadband providers are interested in participating. Tribes should contact providers serving their members to ensure that the provider will participate.

Assistance for Home Learning

The recently enacted American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) included $7.2 billion to help students and school staff purchase necessary equipment, such as laptops and broadband services to enable learning from home. The program will not fund construction of new networks, but will finance the deployment of WiFi hotspots in students’ neighborhoods. The program will reimburse 100% of the reasonable costs of eligible equipment and services. The FCC has issued a notice seeking comment on implementation of the program, including whether to reimburse schools for costs already incurred to facilitate home learning. The notice is available here. Initial comments are due April 5 and reply comments on April 23, 2021.

States May Use ARPA Funds for Broadband

The ARPA appropriated $20 billion for tribal governments to fund a wide range of COVID-19-related uses, including to make necessary investments in broadband infrastructure. To the extent practicable, the Department of the Treasury must disperse the funds to tribes by May 10, 2021. Of this amount, $1 billion is to be allocated among tribes equally, and $19 billion in a manner to be determined by the Department of the Treasury.

ARPA also included an additional $10 billion for states, territories and tribal governments for critical capital projects “directly enabling work, education, and health monitoring, including remote options” in response to the COVID-19 health emergency. Of this amount, $100 million must be paid in equal shares to tribal governments and the state of Hawaii, where each tribal government must receive at least $50,000. An application process for grants from the capital projects fund must be established within 60 days of enactment.

Share Your Broadband Experience

The inaccuracy of existing broadband maps in identifying unserved or underserved tribal areas has been a major source of concern. The FCC is undertaking an effort to develop better maps that show more accurately where broadband service is or is not available, including obtaining data directly from the public. To facilitate this effort, the FCC has opened a portal to allow persons to share their broadband experience. More information is available here.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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