Tribal advocates urged the FCC to give tribes more time to apply to bid on spectrum in the 2.5 GHz band. They say the COVID pandemic has made it hard for tribes to learn about the licenses. The National Congress of American Indians, tribal insurance provider AMERIND Risk and the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association asked the Commission to keep the application window open until next year. Advocacy group Public Knowledge also joined the emergency motion.
“[T]he ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic, which began almost simultaneously with the opening of the tribal window on February 3, have impacted American Indians and Alaska Natives on tribal lands harder than any other community in America, a situation further aggravated by the lack of reliable broadband on tribal lands,” the motion says. “Unless the Commission extends the tribal window, hundreds of eligible tribal nations will miss this unique opportunity to provide 5G service to their people.”
In February, the FCC launched a six-month period during which tribes may apply for free licenses in the 2.5 GHz band that are unassigned. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai called the opportunity ” a game-changer” for very remote areas that lack fiber connections or reliable mobile service to finally get broadband. Tribes that claim licenses must be able to put the spectrum to use and meet certain build-out milestones after two and five years of obtaining the licenses, the FCC said.
The spectrum at issue is part of the Educational Broadband Service, long reserved for institutions. The FCC voted last July to remove that designation and auction off many of the unassigned licenses to commercial carriers. But it plans to let tribes claim free licenses in their areas first, reported Law360.
According to the petition, many of the activities necessary to comply with the FCC’s procedures for claiming the licenses have become difficult to accomplish during the pandemic. For example, “dedicated tribal government staff must put themselves at risk of infection by returning to their closed offices, or by driving hours to find an available source of broadband, so that they may consult with Commission staff or other federal agencies,” the petition said.
In fact, tribal governments have been so mired by baseline pandemic responses that “hundreds of eligible tribal nations have only recently learned about the availability of the tribal window,” according to the petition. Advocates pressed the FCC to extend the filing deadline until February 1, 2021.