GAO report broadband on tribal landsThe Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently released a report that analyzes barriers to high-speed Internet access on tribal lands.  Acknowledging that lack of service in tribal regions has impeded economic development in particular, the GAO recommends improved coordination efforts between federal agencies and the establishment of performance measures specific to tribal lands. 

The report, titled, “Additional Coordination and Performance Measurement Needed for High-Speed Internet Access Programs on Tribal Lands,” assembles information gathered through interviews with tribal leaders and providers who serve tribal lands, along with coverage data and demographics.  Unusually high poverty rates that reduce broadband adoption rates and the high cost of infrastructure builds on rugged terrain have created roadblocks for establishing key middle-mile infrastructure.

The qualitative data generated from interviews revealed common struggles with lack of experience in bureaucracy and limited technical expertise.  This problem was experienced by a tribe in Utah, when a lack of familiarity with federal granting processes led to a delay in funding for broadband infrastructure.  Such a struggle underscores the importance of state broadband initiatives that can play a role assisting with administrative workloads and communication with providers.

The GAO also found that lack of agency cooperation results in “inefficient use of federal resources and missed opportunities for leveraging resources.”  The FCC and USDA, for example, have interrelated programs that aim to improve broadband access in underserved areas.  The GAO noted a missed opportunity for the two agencies to collaboratively develop joint outreach and training to tribal bodies.  The FCC has also yet to develop performance goals and measures for improving access and speeds on tribal lands.  In addition to establishing goals and measures for household connectivity, the GAO recommended creating a tribal designation for E-Rate funding in order to collect better data and ensure access for critical anchor institutions.

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is scheduled to review and discuss this report on April 27, 2016.  Further consideration of the GAO’s findings might lead to policy changes that can begin to correct the accessibility gaps on tribal lands.  Currently, high-speed Internet is available to 37% of households in tribal regions, compared to 47% of households in rural areas , and 92% of households in urban areas.