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Tribal Outreach Up as EBB Enrollment Lags

FCC emergency broadband benefit enrollment for eligible tribal households continues to decline (see 2106180041). More than 71,000 tribal households have enrolled so far. In the first full week, more than 26,000 tribal households enrolled. During the week of June 14-20, that dropped to 5,076. The lack of broadband availability and questions about EBB mechanics are an obstacle, stakeholders said in interviews.

Tribal households are eligible for a larger benefit, $75 monthly if they live on qualifying tribal lands and meet poverty thresholds. Some remote reservations lack access to a participating provider, said a Partnership with Native Americans spokesperson. Some lack electricity, the spokesperson said: It’s “a small number, but still a reality for some Navajo, Hopi and other citizens on tribal lands.”

It's not a question of outreach, which “has been quite good,” said Theron Rutyna, Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians IT director. Households in Indian country that aren’t connected now can't get EBB because “there’s no way to build out the infrastructure fast enough or connect folks to the infrastructure fast enough to be able to take advantage of this short-lived of a program,” Rutyna said. That’s about 10%-15% of addresses in Red Cliff, he said. The FCC recently granted midband spectrum licenses to rural tribal communities. It hosted a virtual listening session recently to hear from tribal leaders about what's effective in signing up households and where the agency could improve outreach efforts.

Outreach began as early as Feb. 12, with the FCC holding a roundtable. A spokesperson said the commission engaged with tribal communities nearly 40 times. It's doing targeted email outreach, holding Pueblo-specific conference calls to offer technical assistance, and providing digital presentations to tribal-serving organizations, the spokesperson said. The FCC will host a Navajo EBB town hall June 28, she said. Agency staff will provide a program overview and answer questions, and acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel offered to participate.

Tribal enrollment is “a very low number, but hopefully, as more word gets out to the tribal leadership, the awareness will ramp up,” said Native Public Media CEO Loris Taylor. The numbers are lagging because households must work directly with ISPs instead of tribal governments to receive discounted service, Taylor said. Some of the most commonly asked questions have been about the program's mechanics, she said, like how long it lasts and how rates will change once the program ends.

The FCC said it provided a tribal-specific public service announcement to Native Public Media. NPM sent audio files to about 60 member stations to broadcast the PSA or translate it into their languages. NPM sent the FCC an audio file in Navajo, which the agency shared with the New Mexico Public Education Department. Almost 28,000 households, both tribal and non-tribal, in New Mexico have enrolled, according to Universal Service Administrative Co.'s most recent data. Tribal household enrollment data by state isn't public.

The PSA helped the New Mexico Public Education Department “reach many families that are eligible for the EBB program and might not have known about it otherwise,” said a spokesperson. The department “is leaving no stone unturned,” the representative said, and is working with its Indian Education Division and Indian Affairs Department.

The FCC is working with NTIA, the departments of Education and Interior, Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Native American Policy, Health and Human Services’ Indian Health Service, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to get the word out (see 2102250058), per its spokesperson. Data from EBB that can be shared with states will help further attempts at broadband expansion, Rutyna said. The FCC could also consider making a program like this permanent because “there's all the money that comes into the USAC from associated user fees, and rarely, if ever, is all of it expended,” he said. “Everybody, no matter who you are, needs broadband.”


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