Tribal Broadband: Few Partnerships Exist and the Rural Utilities Service Needs to Identify and Address Any Funding Barriers Tribes Face

GAO-18-682 Published: Sep 28, 2018. Publicly Released: Sep 28, 2018.
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Fast Facts

About 35% of Americans living on tribal lands lack access to broadband service. This can limit tribes' economic opportunity, education, public safety, and more.

Tribes can partner with private broadband providers, regional consortiums, and others to increase access, but such partnerships are rare. Tribes can also apply for federal funding for broadband projects, but often have trouble meeting requirements such as completing feasibility studies or getting matching funds.

We recommended that the Rural Utilities Service, which provides broadband funding, identify barriers to funding access and help tribes overcome them.

Photograph of a totem pole carved and painted with figures and masks.

Photograph of a totem pole carved and painted with figures and masks.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

GAO identified some partnership arrangements between tribes and other entities to increase broadband access on tribal lands. Among the seven examples GAO identified, tribes partnered with different types of entities including private broadband providers, a community access network provider, an electric cooperative, a regional consortium, and tribally owned broadband providers. According to the tribes participating in the partnerships, almost all of the partnerships improved broadband service on tribal lands.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) are the primary sources of federal funding to deploy broadband infrastructure where the cost of providing service is high, including on tribal lands. GAO reviewed funding for four programs, three in FCC and one grant program in RUS, and found that in total, less than 1 percent has gone directly to tribes or to tribally owned broadband providers to expand broadband service. GAO found that 14 tribal entities received federal funding from FCC and RUS to increase broadband deployment for 2010–2017.

GAO's Analysis of Federal Funding for Broadband Deployment, 2010-2017

GAO's Analysis of Federal Funding for Broadband Deployment, 2010-2017

aFCC funding includes the Mobility Fund Phase I, Tribal Mobility Fund Phase I, and Connect America Fund.

The tribal officials, tribal associations, and tribally owned broadband providers GAO contacted cited several barriers tribes face in obtaining federal funding to deploy broadband service on tribal lands. For example, they said tribes face regulatory barriers in applying for RUS's grant funding, including (1) preparing existing and proposed network design, (2) demonstrating financial sustainability of the broadband project within 5 years, and (3) obtaining matching funds. An interagency council recently recommended that federal agencies identify and address regulatory barriers that may unduly impede broadband deployment. Although RUS conducts some outreach with tribes, it has not undertaken a formal assessment to identify and address the regulatory barriers that tribes may face in obtaining RUS's funding for broadband deployment. RUS officials told GAO that they do not have the resources to do so. Nevertheless, lacking such an assessment, tribes may continue to face regulatory barriers in obtaining RUS funding for broadband deployment on their lands. By identifying and addressing any regulatory barriers that impede tribal entities' access to RUS funding, RUS could help tribes obtain funding to expand broadband deployment on tribal lands.

Why GAO Did This Study

In 2018, FCC estimated that 35 percent of Americans living on tribal lands lack broadband service compared to 8 percent of Americans overall. Various federal programs support increasing broadband deployment in unserved areas, including tribal lands. Tribes can form partnerships with private sector companies and others to deploy broadband infrastructure on tribal lands. GAO was asked to provide information on these partnerships.

This report discusses (1) examples and outcomes of tribal partnership arrangements, (2) the amount of federal funding provided to tribal entities for broadband deployment, and (3) stakeholder-identified barriers that tribes face in obtaining federal funding and the extent to which federal agencies have addressed those barriers. GAO identified partnerships by reviewing federally funded broadband projects that included a partnership component; analyzed federal funding dedicated to broadband deployment; interviewed agency and tribal government officials, tribal associations, tribally owned broadband providers, and industry stakeholders; and assessed RUS's efforts to address the regulatory funding barriers tribes may face. The information presented is illustrative and is not generalizable to all tribes or all partnerships.

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Recommendations

GAO recommends that RUS identify and address regulatory barriers that impede tribal entities from obtaining RUS funding for broadband deployment. RUS neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Agriculture The Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator of RUS to undertake an assessment to identify any regulatory barriers that may unduly impede efforts by tribes to obtain RUS federal grant funds for broadband deployment on tribal lands and implement any steps necessary to address the identified barriers. (Recommendation 1)
Closed – Implemented
In 2018, FCC estimated that 35 percent of Americans living on tribal lands lack broadband service compared to 8 percent of Americans overall. Although various federal programs support increasing broadband deployment in unserved areas, including tribal lands, FCC and the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) are the primary sources of federal funding for the programs. In 2018, we reported that little federal funding aimed at increasing broadband deployment actually goes to tribal entities. Specifically, less than 1 percent of FCC funding and about 14 percent of RUS funding went directly to tribes and tribally owned providers. The National Broadband Plan recommended that federal agencies facilitate tribal access to broadband funding opportunities. Furthermore, the Broadband Opportunity Council reported that federal agencies should use all available and appropriate authorities to identify and address regulatory barriers that may unduly impede either broadband deployment or the infrastructure to augment broadband deployment. The tribal officials, tribal associations, and tribally owned broadband providers we interviewed cited several barriers that tribes may face in obtaining federal funding for broadband deployment on tribal lands. In particular, they said tribes face regulatory barriers in applying for RUS's grant funding, such as demonstrating financial sustainability of the broadband project within 5 years and obtaining matching funds. We reported that although RUS conducts some outreach with tribes, it had not undertaken a formal assessment to identify and address the regulatory barriers that tribes may face in obtaining RUS's funding for broadband deployment. Therefore, we recommended that RUS identify any regulatory barriers that may unduly impede efforts by tribes to obtain RUS federal grant funds for broadband deployment on tribal lands and implement any steps necessary to address the identified barriers. In 2022, we confirmed that RUS held a listening session with tribal entities to identify the regulatory barriers tribes face with RUS broadband grant funding, and subsequently made a number of changes to the broadband grant funding to help support tribal applications. Specifically, RUS's grant funding includes $35 million in funds for projects serving tribal communities and substantially vulnerable communities that does not require any matching funds for awardees, an area which RUS believes has been a significant barrier to tribal applicants. Additionally, RUS's grant funding prioritizes projects that are submitted by tribal governments. By identifying and addressing the regulatory barriers that impede tribal entities' access to RUS funding, RUS is helping to ensure tribes are better able to obtain funding to expand broadband deployment on tribal lands.

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