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Information technology > 10. Tribal Internet Access

Greater coordination among the Federal Communications Commission's Universal Service Fund subsidy programs and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service grant programs could result in more efficient and effective support of Internet access for tribal communities.

Why This Area Is Important

High-speed Internet service is viewed as a critical component of the nation’s infrastructure and an economic driver. The Internet is particularly useful to tribal communities—which are generally located in remote, rural locations—as access to it offers new opportunities for growth, productivity, and innovation. In 2012, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reported that the lack of service in rural and tribal lands presents impediments to efforts of tribal nations to build their internal structures for self-governance, economic opportunity, education, public safety, and cultural preservation.[1] The communications infrastructure that supports Internet access is, by and large, built and operated by private industry, but the federal government provides funding to promote greater access and adoption of high-speed Internet through FCC’s Universal Service Fund and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Utilities Service. From fiscal years 2010 to 2014, the federal government provided over $33 billion in assistance to telecommunications service providers and municipalities to build or improve networks in order to further the national goal of universal high-speed Internet access in underserved areas, including tribal lands.[2]

FCC and USDA implement several mutually supportive, interrelated high-speed Internet access programs that offer assistance to tribes and the providers that serve tribal lands.

  • FCC’s Universal Service Fund supports three programs—the Connect America Fund, the Schools and Library Support Program, and the Healthcare Connect Fund—that provide subsidies or discounts to improve telecommunications services, including services in tribal lands. The goals of these programs include increasing access to Internet service for all consumers at reasonable and affordable rates.
  • USDA’s Rural Utilities Service supports programs—the Distance Learning and Telemedicine program and the Community Connect Program—that also help to improve infrastructure for high-speed Internet and other telecommunications services through grants, loans, and loan guarantees. These programs seek to extend high-speed Internet access in rural communities, where it is least likely to be commercially available.

FCC’s and USDA’s programs have similar goals to increase access to Internet service on tribal lands, and both agencies’ programs offer funding to either tribal entities or service providers to achieve this goal of increased access. For example, FCC’s Health Care Connect and USDA’s Distance Learning and Telemedicine programs both seek to assist clinics in connecting to the Internet, including those clinics on tribal lands. Further, both FCC and USDA programs have eligibility requirements such as the need and condition of the Internet infrastructure in a region. Tribes sometimes qualify for benefits from more than one of these programs, either directly or through private-sector Internet providers.

[1] For this report, GAO has defined tribal lands as lands that include any federally recognized Indian tribe’s reservation, off-reservation trust lands, pueblo, or colony, and Alaska Native regions established pursuant to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, Pub. L. No. 92-203, 85 Stat. 688 (1971) (codified as amended at 43 U.S.C. §§ 1601 et seq.). Tribal lands do not include Oklahoma Tribal Statistical Areas (OTSA), and the population figure of 640,000 does not include the 401,000 Native Americans living on OTSAs.

[2] Due to a lack of specific data, GAO was unable to determine the portion of funds that went to tribal lands from each of the programs.

What GAO Found

In a January 2016 report, GAO found that FCC and USDA do not coordinate to develop joint outreach and training for their programs that promote high-speed Internet access in tribal lands, which could result in an inefficient use of federal resources and missed opportunities for resource leveraging between the two agencies. About half of the 21 tribes GAO interviewed for its January 2016 report said that a lack of tribal members with sufficient administrative and technical expertise is a barrier to increasing high-speed Internet access on tribal lands. Tribal officials said that tribal members do not always have the bureaucratic expertise required to apply for federal funds, which can lead to mistakes or the need to hire consultants. The National Broadband Plan recognized the challenges of administrative and technical capacity and recommended that FCC and Congress support technical training and capacity development on tribal lands, such as by considering additional funding for tribal leaders to participate in FCC training at no cost.[1]  However, despite the importance of training and outreach, FCC’s and USDA’s programs in this area are not always well coordinated.

One area in which FCC and USDA lack coordination is their outreach and technical assistance efforts when planning visits to tribes or training events. Synchronizing these activities could improve the efficiency, reach, and effectiveness of these programs. However, both FCC and USDA independently conduct outreach and training efforts for related programs promoting Internet access, including the following examples:

  • FCC spent $300,000 on tribal consultation and training in fiscal year 2015. While FCC officials said they invite USDA officials to FCC training workshops and are sometimes invited to USDA training workshops, they said that they do not coordinate to develop joint outreach or training events. This lack of coordination could result in an inefficient use of federal resources to improve access to high-speed Internet, missed opportunities for resource leveraging between FCC and USDA, and the need for tribes to attend multiple events.
  • While USDA held a training event in Washington State in fiscal year 2015, FCC hosted a training event in Oregon the same year. The two agencies could have planned a joint training event in the Pacific Northwest Region and each contributed toward the costs of the event while reducing the cost burdens for tribes, which would not have had to travel twice or choose between the two training events given limited budgets.

Officials from one tribe said that multiple federal programs offering similar grants were confusing and that a federal one-stop-shop for outreach and training would help them better target the right programs for their situation. Officials from a different tribe said that the tribe benefits from FCC programs but not USDA programs, in part because tribal officials did not have a strong understanding of the USDA programs that might benefit their community’s Internet access.

GAO’s body of work has shown that interagency coordination in general can help agencies with interrelated programs ensure efficient use of resources and effective programs.[2] Agencies can enhance and sustain their coordinated efforts by engaging in key practices, such as establishing compatible policies and procedures through official agreements.[3] Agencies can also develop means to operate across agency boundaries, including leveraging resources across agencies for joint activities such as training and outreach.[4] Through better coordination where feasible on joint training and outreach efforts to build tribal administrative and technical capacity, FCC and USDA could better ensure that their programs are efficient and remain mutually supportive and accessible to tribal governments.

[1] In March 2010, FCC issued the National Broadband Plan, which included a centralized vision for achieving affordability and maximizing use of high-speed Internet to advance community development, health care delivery, education, job creation, and other national purposes.  FCC, Connecting America: The National Broadband Plan (Washington D.C.: 2010).

[2] GAO, Managing for Results: Barriers to Interagency Coordination, GAO/GGD‑00‑106 (Washington, D.C.: Mar. 29, 2000).

[3] GAO, Managing for Results: Key Considerations for Implementing Interagency Collaborative Mechanisms, GAO‑12‑1022 (Washington, D.C.: Sept. 27, 2012).

[4] GAO, Fragmentation, Overlap, and Duplication: An Evaluation and Management Guide, GAO‑15‑49SP (Washington, D.C.: Apr. 14, 2015).

Actions Needed

GAO recommended in January 2016 that the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission take the following action:

  • Develop joint outreach and training efforts with USDA whenever feasible to help improve Internet availability and adoption on tribal lands.

GAO cannot quantify financial benefits due to a lack of specific data on which service providers serve tribal areas. However, implementing this action could result in more efficient and effective use of federal resources and reduce confusion that can arise from multiple programs.

How GAO Conducted Its Work

To determine the level of interrelation and coordination between federal programs at FCC and USDA that promote high-speed Internet access on tribal lands, GAO reviewed FCC and USDA program funding and guidance materials for fiscal year 2010 through 2014. GAO also interviewed FCC and USDA officials, as well as officials from 18 tribal governments in the continental United States, 3 Alaska Native regions, and 6 service providers operating on tribal lands. To identify tribes to interview, GAO reviewed the types and amounts of assistance provided by FCC and USDA between fiscal years 2010 and 2014 and Bureau of the Census 2013 data regarding population and poverty rates. Tribes were selected to have a range of population, poverty rates, and locations, both remote and closer to urban areas. These interviews were not generalizable to all tribes or all service providers. GAO evaluated Universal Service Fund and Rural Utilities Service program coordination based on criteria for implementing interrelated programs developed in previous GAO work on fragmentation, overlap, duplication, and interagency coordination within the federal government.[1]

Table 6 in appendix V lists the programs GAO identified that might have similar or overlapping objectives, provide similar services, or be fragmented across government missions. Overlap and fragmentation might not necessarily lead to actual duplication, and some degree of overlap and duplication may be justified.

[1] GAO, Fragmentation, Overlap, and Duplication: An Evaluation and Management Guide, GAO‑15‑49SP (Washington, D.C.: Apr. 14, 2015); Managing for Results: Barriers to Interagency Coordination, GAO/GGD‑00‑106 (Washington, D.C.: Mar. 29, 2000); and Managing for Results: Key Considerations for Implementing Interagency Collaborative Mechanisms, GAO‑12‑1022 (Washington, D.C.: Sept. 27, 2012).

Agency Comments & GAO Contact

In commenting on the January 2016 report on which this analysis is based, FCC concurred with GAO’s recommendation. FCC summarized the areas in which it coordinates with USDA and said that it will continue to work with USDA to ensure more strategic and routine coordination.

GAO provided a draft of this report section to FCC and USDA for review and comment. FCC concurred with the recommendation and said that it will continue to work with USDA to ensure more strategic and routine coordination. FCC invited USDA officials to their 2016 training events. USDA did not provide comments on this report section.

For additional information about this area, contact Mark L. Goldstein, (202) 512-2834 or

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