We want to help more tribal communities get connected, but we need Congress to act
Today, school-aged children on local tribal lands are boarding buses to and from school with an internet connection that allows them to do their homework and make productive use of the four-hour roundtrip commute. For many, this is the first reliable internet connection they’ve ever had, and it’s key to closing the homework gap in our region.
For more than 25 years, Cellular One has been working hard to solve problems such as this and ensure everyone across the Four Corners region has access to a reliable, secure, wireless connection.
When we started, less than 40% of households on tribal lands had a phone connection of any kind, wired or wireless. Today that number has grown to more than 90%. We’re especially proud of the work we’ve done to connect our local students — Cellular One’s network supports 90 tribal schools, and we are the largest last-mile provider for the Bureau of Indian Education.
Over the past few decades, this progress has been aided by smart government programs. Those include the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF), a pandemic era program which helped schools and libraries provide access to connectivity and devices to their students to use at home, and the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which provides monthly discounts on wired or wireless service up to $30 to low-income households and up to $75 to eligible households on qualified tribal lands.
The ECF was a huge help getting students connected during the pandemic, enabling schools and libraries to distribute free hotspot devices to those in need. Today, the ACP is keeping those students connected so they can do their homework on those long bus rides and at home, providing a subsidy that 40,000 of our customers are applying to their wireless bill for cellphones, hotspots, and more.
These programs have had a big impact, but they aren’t enough. To get and keep all Americans connected, the government must build out these programs and pursue additional smart policies, such as fully funding and extending the ACP and ensuring that America’s mobile networks have the spectrum needed to expand access and meet demand.
Spectrum refers to the invisible airwaves that carry wireless communications. Since 1987, Congress had allowed the Federal Communications Commission to auction spectrum, enabling carriers to build the foundation of wireless service. Auctions have been particularly important to smaller, regional carriers like us, enabling competition with the bigger providers and helping us bring enhanced coverage and service to our community.
But in March, Congress let the FCC’s authority to auction spectrum expire. Without a steady stream of spectrum, progress throughout the nation will be halted, and rural and tribal communities will bear the brunt of this change.
This will constrain our ability to expand coverage, and it means that customers across the regions we serve won’t experience the faster speeds, enhanced coverage, and innovative apps and services that will run on tomorrow’s networks. And in this digital era, that can really hurt our students, our local economy, and the future of this region.
If anyone doubts the importance of wireless service to rural and tribal lands, they need only look at how communities respond when service expands. New towers built on our tribal lands are often welcomed with blessing ceremonies.
A recent blessing ceremony at the tower site in New Mexico was led by Medicine Man Herbert Harvey to celebrate the expansion of LTE voice and mobile broadband coverage to the Beclabito, Cottonwood Circle, and Star Lake communities and important travel corridors, including Highway 64 between Shiprock and Kayenta.
It’s easy to see why these towers and the new coverage and capacity they bring are such a blessing to the communities we serve. The connectivity they provide is giving our students access to the internet to do their homework at home and on the bus, helping folks in our communities start and expand their businesses, allowing residents in our area to make virtual visits to doctors that may be located hours away, and providing our public safety officials with more tools and touchpoints to help individuals facing emergencies in remote and rural locations.
We’re proud of how we’ve helped our communities get and stay connected, and we want to continue offering the area’s best cell service and network. But to get there, we need Congress to reauthorize the FCC to hold these important spectrum auctions, and federal stakeholders to work together to allocate more spectrum for wireless providers to license to support the evolution of our networks and needs of our customers.