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Tribal Broadband: FCC's Data Overstate Access, and Tribes Face Barriers Accessing Funding

GAO-19-134T Published: Oct 03, 2018. Publicly Released: Oct 03, 2018.
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Fast Facts

Broadband provides high-speed Internet service, which can improve communications and drive economic growth. However, tribal lands have lower levels of broadband access than the rest of the nation. Congress has prioritized identifying unserved areas and targeting funds to increase broadband deployment, including on tribal lands.

In this testimony, we found:

this digital divide on tribal lands may be larger than estimated because FCC data overstate availability on tribal lands

tribes face barriers to obtaining funds to improve access. Less than 1 percent of broadband funding from programs we reviewed went directly to tribes from 2010 to 2017.

Map of Federally Recognized Tribal Lands

This visual is a U.S. map showing where federally recognized tribal lands are located in the 50 states.

This visual is a U.S. map showing where federally recognized tribal lands are located in the 50 states.

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What GAO Found

The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) approach to collecting data on broadband availability causes it to overstate broadband access—the ability to obtain service—on tribal lands. In FCC’s approach, broadband is considered to be “available” for an entire census block if the provider could serve at least one location in the census block. FCC, tribal stakeholders, and providers have noted that this approach leads to overstatements of broadband availability. Because FCC uses these data to measure broadband access, it also overstates broadband access on tribal lands. By developing and implementing methods for collecting and reporting accurate and complete data on broadband access specific to tribal lands, FCC would be better able to target federal broadband funding to tribal areas that need it the most.

FCC does not have a formal process to obtain tribal input on the accuracy of provider-submitted broadband data. Most of the tribal stakeholders GAO interviewed stated FCC should work more directly with tribes to improve the accuracy of FCC’s data. Establishing a formal process to obtain input from tribal governments could help improve the accuracy of FCC’s broadband data for tribal lands.

Tribes have formed partnerships with different types of entities to deploy broadband infrastructure on tribal lands, but such partnerships are not widespread. The partnerships GAO identified included private providers, a community access network provider, an electric cooperative, a regional consortium, and tribally owned broadband providers.

GAO reviewed four federal programs to deploy broadband services and found that from 2010 to 2017, less than 1 percent of funding has gone directly to tribes or tribally owned providers. The tribal entities GAO contacted cited barriers to obtaining funds from the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) grant funding, such as preparing network design, demonstrating financial sustainability of the broadband project within 5 years, and obtaining matching funds required to apply for federal grants. However, according to RUS officials, RUS has not taken steps to identify or address the barriers tribes face when applying for RUS grant funding due to limited resources and multiple competing priorities for those resources. By identifying and addressing regulatory barriers that may 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

This testimony summarizes the information contained in two GAO reports: Broadband Internet: FCC’s Data Overstate Access on Tribal Lands, (GAO-18-630) and Tribal Broadband: Few Partnerships Exist and the Rural Utilities Service Needs to Identify and Address Any Funding Barriers Tribes Face (GAO-18-682). Specifically, it addresses (1) the extent to which FCC’s approach to collecting broadband availability data accurately captures broadband access on tribal lands, (2) the extent to which FCC obtains tribal input on the data, (3) partnerships tribes have formed with entities to deploy broadband infrastructure on tribal lands, and (4) barriers tribes face in obtaining federal funding. For these reports, GAO analyzed FCC and RUS data, and interviewed agency officials as well as a non-generalizable sample of stakeholders representing tribes and broadband providers.


In GAO-18-630, GAO made three recommendations to FCC, two of which related to improving its collection of broadband data.  In GAO-18-682, GAO made one recommendation to RUS to address regulatory barriers. FCC agreed and RUS neither agreed nor disagreed and both agencies described actions planned to address the recommendations. 

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BroadbandBroadband servicesCensusCommunicationsData collectionInternet servicesNative American landsNative AmericansTelecommunicationsUniversal service fund