Fast Facts

Broadband Internet service is essential to many aspects of modern life, so it's important to make sure everyone has access. Yet tribal lands, especially in rural areas, are still underserved.

In such areas, wireless broadband can help keep people connected. However, the Federal Communications Commission has done little to promote and support tribes' access to radio frequency spectrum that can be used for such wireless service.

We made 3 recommendations to the FCC to help improve tribes' access.


Photograph of cell tower in a snowy field.

Photograph of cell tower in a snowy field.

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What GAO Found

The tribal entities GAO contacted cited various barriers to obtaining spectrum licenses in bands that can be used to provide broadband services. According to its analysis of data from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), GAO identified 18 tribal entities that held active spectrum licenses in such bands. For example, of these 18 tribal entities, 4 obtained licenses through secondary market transactions—that is, they bought or leased the license from another provider, and 2 obtained a license through an FCC spectrum auction. Licensed spectrum is generally preferred because it offers better quality of service compared to unlicensed spectrum; however, almost all of the tribal entities GAO contacted said that they are accessing unlicensed spectrum to provide Internet service. They identified barriers to obtaining licensed spectrum through auctions and secondary market transactions, barriers such as high costs and, in the case of secondary market transactions, a lack of information on who holds licenses over tribal lands. Because most spectrum allocated for commercial use has already been assigned, the secondary market is one of very few avenues available to tribal entities that would like to access licensed spectrum.

FCC has taken steps to promote and support tribal access to spectrum. For example, FCC issued proposed rulemakings in 2011 and 2018 that sought comment on tribal-specific proposals, such as establishing tribal-licensing priorities and initiating processes to transfer unused spectrum licenses to tribal entities. However, FCC has not finalized these rules and is in the process of responding to comments to the 2018 rulemaking. Also, while FCC has made additional spectrum available for broadband use in recent years, tribal stakeholders cited limitations with the spectrum FCC has made available. For example, FCC allows broadband providers to operate in unused television broadcast bands on an unlicensed basis. While stakeholders GAO interviewed cited some advantages of these bands, such as being useful to reach remote customers, they also noted technical and cost limitations that reduced the potential to improve tribal access to spectrum. FCC stated that it is implementing spectrum initiatives and recognizes the importance of promoting a robust secondary market to improve communications throughout the United States, including tribal lands. However, GAO found that FCC has not collected data related to tribal access to spectrum, analyzed unused licensed spectrum that exists over tribal lands, or made data available to tribal entities in an accessible and easy manner that could be beneficial in their efforts to obtain spectrum licenses from other providers. By collecting data on the extent that tribal entities are obtaining and accessing spectrum, FCC could better understand tribal spectrum issues and use this information as it implements ongoing spectrum initiatives. Further, given that the secondary market is one of few ways for tribal entities to access licensed spectrum to be able to provide Internet service, FCC could promote a more robust secondary market by analyzing unused licensed spectrum over tribal lands and using that information to inform FCC's oversight of the secondary market. Additionally, by making information available on who holds spectrum licenses over tribal lands, FCC could remove a barrier tribes may face in attempting to obtain spectrum through the secondary market.

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. Broadband service can be delivered through wireless technologies using radio frequency spectrum. According to FCC, increasing tribal access to spectrum would help expand broadband service on tribal lands. GAO was asked to review spectrum use by tribal entities—tribal governments and tribally owned telecommunications providers.

This report examines (1) tribal entities' ability to obtain and access spectrum to provide broadband services and the reported barriers that may exist, and (2) the extent to which FCC promotes and supports tribal efforts to obtain and access spectrum. GAO interviewed 16 tribal entities that were using wireless technologies. Selected entities varied geographically, among other characteristics. GAO analyzed FCC's license and auction data as of September 2018, reviewed FCC's rulemakings on spectrum for broadband services, and interviewed other tribal and industry stakeholders and FCC officials. The information presented is not generalizable to all tribes or industry participants.

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FCC should (1) collect data on tribal access to spectrum; (2) analyze unused licensed spectrum over tribal lands; and (3) make information available in a more accessible manner that would promote tribes' ability to purchase or lease spectrum licenses over their lands from other providers. FCC agreed with the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Federal Communications Commission The Chairman of FCC should collect data on the extent that tribal entities are obtaining and accessing spectrum and use this information as FCC implements ongoing spectrum initiatives. (Recommendation 1)
As of August 2021, FCC said it is considering ways to collect data on the extent that tribal entities are obtaining and accessing spectrum, including updating application forms to provide for voluntary submission of this information. FCC noted that this is an ongoing activity with no specific completion date.
Federal Communications Commission The Chairman of FCC should analyze data to better understand the extent that unused spectrum licenses exist over tribal lands, such as by analyzing the data for a sample of tribal lands, and as appropriate use this information to inform its oversight of the secondary market. (Recommendation 2)
As of August 2021, FCC provided some documentation to us to address this recommendation. We asked FCC to provide additional information and analysis demonstrating how its efforts are informing oversight of the secondary market. We will continue to monitor FCC actions in this area.
Federal Communications Commission The Chairman of FCC should make information on spectrum-license holders more accessible and easy to understand for interested parties, including tribal entities, to promote their ability to purchase or lease spectrum licenses from other providers. (Recommendation 3)
As of August 2021, FCC said it was engaged in a multi-year project to modernize the Universal Licensing System (ULS), which is the online system that contains electronic records of all wireless spectrum licenses. FCC said it would transition ULS to a new platform that will provide more consistent performance, easier access to information, and enhanced functionality; the ULS modernization is an ongoing activity that FCC believes will be completed by December 2021.

Full Report

GAO Contacts