Telecommunications:

Additional Coordination and Performance Measurement Needed for High-Speed Internet Access Programs on Tribal Lands

GAO-16-222: Published: Jan 29, 2016. Publicly Released: Feb 3, 2016.

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goldsteinm@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

Although all 21 tribes GAO interviewed have some access to high-speed Internet, tribes and providers GAO interviewed cited barriers to increasing access. For example, high poverty rates and the high costs of connecting remote tribal villages to core Internet networks—called middle-mile infrastructure—limit high-speed Internet availability and adoption on tribal lands (see fig.). About half of the tribes GAO interviewed also said that the lack of sufficient administrative and technical expertise among tribal members limits their efforts to increase high-speed Internet access.

Types of Middle-Mile Internet Service Delivery Infrastructure

Types of Middle-Mile Internet Service Delivery Infrastructure

The Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) Universal Service Fund subsidy programs and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Rural Utilities Service grant programs are interrelated in that they seek to increase high-speed Internet access in underserved areas, including tribal lands. GAO's previous work on overlap, duplication, and fragmentation has shown that interagency coordination on interrelated programs can help ensure efficient use of resources and effective programs. However, FCC and USDA do not coordinate to develop joint outreach and training. This could result in an inefficient use of federal resources and missed opportunities for resource leveraging between FCC and USDA.

FCC has placed special emphasis on improving Internet access on tribal lands following the issuance of the National Broadband Plan, which called for greater efforts to make broadband available on tribal lands. However, FCC has not developed performance goals and measures for improving high-speed Internet availability to households on tribal lands. Without these goals and measures FCC cannot assess the impact of its efforts. The National Broadband Map includes data on Internet availability on tribal lands that could allow FCC to establish baseline measures for Internet availability on tribal lands. Further, FCC also lacks performance goals and measures for tribal institutions—such as schools and libraries. Specifically, FCC's E-rate program provides funds to ensure that schools and libraries have affordable access to modern broadband technologies, but FCC has not set any performance goals for the program's impact on tribal institutions. Nor has FCC defined “tribal” on the E-rate application. Without such information, it will be difficult to accurately track progress in making broadband available in tribal institutions.

Why GAO Did This Study

High-speed Internet service is viewed as a critical component of the nation's infrastructure and an economic driver, particularly to remote tribal communities. However, in 2015, FCC reported that the lack of service in tribal areas presents impediments. GAO was asked to review the status of high-speed Internet on tribal lands. The report examines (1) perspectives of tribes and providers on high-speed Internet access and barriers to increasing this access; (2) the level of interrelation and coordination between federal programs that promote high-speed Internet access on tribal lands; and (3) existing data and performance measures related to high-speed Internet on tribal lands. GAO visited or interviewed officials from a non-generalizable sample of 21 tribal entities and 6 service providers selected to provide diversity in size, location, and poverty levels. GAO also reviewed FCC and USDA fiscal year 2010 through 2014 program data, funding, and materials and interviewed federal officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that FCC (1) develop joint training and outreach with USDA; (2) develop performance goals and measures for tribal areas for improving broadband availability to households; (3) develop performance goals and measures for improving broadband availability to tribal schools and libraries; and (4) improve the reliability of FCC data related to institutions that receive E-rate funding by defining “tribal” on the program application. FCC agreed with the recommendations.

For more information, contact Mark Goldstein at (202) 512-6670 or goldsteinm@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: As of June 2017, FCC indicated that it is taking steps to hold joint outreach and training efforts with USDA when feasible and FCC plans to document those efforts over the next year. GAO will continue to monitor the status of FCC's efforts.

    Recommendation: To help improve and measure the availability and adoption of high-speed Internet on tribal lands, the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission should develop joint outreach and training efforts with USDA whenever feasible to help improve Internet availability and adoption on tribal lands.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: High-speed Internet service is viewed as a critical component of the nation's infrastructure and an economic driver, particularly to remote tribal communities. However, in 2015, FCC reported that the lack of service in tribal areas presents impediments. In 2016, GAO reported that FCC has placed special emphasis on improving Internet access on tribal lands following the issuance of the National Broadband Plan, which called for greater efforts to make broadband available on tribal lands. However, FCC had not developed performance goals and measures for improving high-speed Internet availability to households on tribal lands. Without these goals and measures FCC cannot assess the impact of its efforts. The National Broadband Map includes data on Internet availability on tribal lands that could allow FCC to establish baseline measures for Internet availability on tribal lands. Therefore, GAO recommended that FCC develop performance goals and measures using, for example, data supporting the National Broadband Map, to track progress on achieving its strategic objective of making broadband Internet available to households on tribal lands. In 2016, FCC issued its 2016 Broadband Progress Report that specifically applied performance goals and measures for availability and adoption of high-speed internet on Tribal lands, which are the same as FCC's performance goals and measures for non-Tribal lands. The report also contained data showing the rates of availability and adoption by Tribal households on Tribal lands using National Broadband Map data. For example, the report stated regarding availability that 41 percent of Americans living on Tribal lands lack access to fixed 25 Mbps/3 Mbps internet service and that that more than 68 percent of Americans living on Tribal lands in rural areas lack access, compared to 14 percent living on Tribal lands in urban areas. With these new performance goals, FCC is in a better position to measure and improve high-speed internet availability to households on tribal lands.

    Recommendation: To help improve and measure the availability and adoption of high-speed Internet on tribal lands, the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission should develop performance goals and measures using, for example, data supporting the National Broadband Map, to track progress on achieving its strategic objective of making broadband Internet available to households on tribal lands.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: As of June 2017, FCC reiterated that it agrees with this recommendation and is working on developing a definition for "tribal" that it can use. FCC hopes to have the definition developed, approved, and put into use by Spring 2018.

    Recommendation: To help improve and measure the availability and adoption of high-speed Internet on tribal lands, the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission should improve the reliability of FCC data related institutions that receive E-Rate funding by defining "tribal" on the program application.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: FCC said that defining "tribal" is a necessary first step to tracking progress on ensuring that all tribal schools and libraries have affordable access to modern broadband technologies. FCC plans to have a definition of "tribal" in place by Spring 2018. Once the definition is in place, FCC said that it will start tracking progress using that definition.

    Recommendation: To help improve and measure the availability and adoption of high-speed Internet on tribal lands, the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission should develop performance goals and measures to track progress on achieving its strategic objective of ensuring that all tribal schools and libraries have affordable access to modern broadband technologies.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

 

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