Bridging the Digital Divide: The Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program

Work is being done to bridge the digital divide for Native Americans living on reservations and Tribal lands in the U.S. But is it helping?

The Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program is an ongoing initiative by the US government to provide funding and infrastructure to close the digital divide. Here's an overview of the program and the progress made since its inception in 2021.

A Native American family using a computer to do homework

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What Is the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program?

The Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program was part of the 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act, a stimulus and spending package that aimed in part to address issues that arose from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The initial investment in the TBCP was $980 million, which the government rewarded as grants.

These grants aim to pay for broadband deployment, distance learning, and telehealth while subsidizing the costs of networks on Tribal lands. After an immense response to the program, Congress made another $2 billion available to the fund.

The original conditions of the grants have also changed in light of the 280 applications for funding. The current stipulations are:

  • Recipients must commit the money to a project within 18 months (originally six months).
  • Funds must be spent within four years (up from one year).
  • Any funds left over must go toward further broadband projects; they do not have to return any remainder to the U.S. Treasury.

How Many Grants Have Been Awarded So Far?

The program is ongoing and, of the applications it received during the application window (which closed in September 2021), 132 projects are currently active with total funding of about $1.7 billion. Applications go through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration; individual awards are different depending on the project, and the remainder of the applications are under review.

The following table shows how the awards break down regionally, according to the NTIA:

 Region Location  Projects Funding (millions)
Alaska Alaska 21 $386.1
Eastern Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Georgia, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia 12 $35.5
Eastern Oklahoma  Oklahoma (eastern) 6 $150.2
Great Plains  Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota 10 $126.2
Hawaii  Hawaii 1 $17.2
Midwest  Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin 11 $77.3
Navajo  Navajo Nation (bounded by Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah) 2 $84.1
Northwest  Idaho, Montana (western), Oregon, Washington 12 $137.9
Pacific  California, Nevada (southwestern) 18 $154.7
Rocky Mountain  Montana (central and eastern), Wyoming 4 $143
Southern Plains  Kansas, Oklahoma (western), Texas 7 $60.7
Southwest  Colorado, New Mexico 12 $236.4
Western  Arizona, Nevada, Utah 16 $124.2

What Is the Digital Divide?

The digital divide is a general term that describes inequality in access to current technologies like smartphones, computers, and internet access.

This technical imbalance can affect a variety of demographic groups, with a lot of overlap. Some examples include:

  • Inhabitants of rural or otherwise remote areas.
  • Lower-income earners.
  • Members of marginalized racial and ethnic groups.

A digital divide can develop due to several reasons. One common one is a lack of infrastructure in a population area. For example, a telecom company may not build cellular towers or install high-speed internet in sparsely populated areas because it's more financially beneficial to them to serve places with more potential customers.

Similarly, supply-chain issues can create technological deserts. The supply of technology such as computers and other devices in an area may suffer due to some companies not shipping there, for instance.

Income disparity is also a big driver of this issue; people who don't make a lot of money may not be able to afford the newest hardware, the fastest internet, or even access to places they can use this technology for free, like public libraries.

How Does the Digital Divide Impact Native Americans?

Because the digital divide often affects people who live away from busy, urban areas, it has hit Native American reservations and other Tribal lands particularly hard.

A 2013-2017 study by the U.S. Census Bureau revealed some key disparities. While it didn't specifically survey Native populations, it did uncover several correlations between internet access and income, population density, and demographic groups. These data broke down by county, which the Census Bureau split into three groups:

  • Mostly urban: less than 50.0% of the population lives in rural areas.
  • Mostly rural: 50.0 - 99.9% of the population lives in rural areas.
  • Completely rural: 100% of the population lives in a rural area.

For purposes of this study, "rural" describes areas of open country and settlements of fewer than 2,500 residents. "Urban" describes an area with a population density of 1,000 people per square mile.

Some of the study's takeaways include the following;

  • The average mostly-urban county had an over 75% broadband subscription rate, compared to 67% of mostly-rural and 65% of completely-rural counties.
  • Only 13% of counties with subscription rates of 80% or more were mostly or completely rural. 88% of the counties with rates below 60% were mostly or completely rural.
  • The average connection rate in counties with a median household income of at least $50,000 was over 77%. The average rate in communities with median incomes below $50,000 was 65%.
  • Native Americans had a 67% subscription rate, while non-Native Americans averaged 82%.
  • Native Americans living on reservations or other Tribal lands had a 53% subscription rate.

The Problem May Be Worse Than We Think

The figures above figures are based on the Census Bureau's definitions, which claim that 72% of Native people live in "urban" areas (i.e., communities of at least 2,500 people), but other studies suggest this definition is neither accurate nor practical.

"Twice Invisible: Understanding Rural Native America," a 2017 study by Sarah Dewees and Benjamin Marks of the First Nations Development Institute, factors in the remoteness of a town or city independently of population. Instead, factors like housing density, incidence of commuting, and urbanization make the difference between rural and urban areas.

This study has five categories of populations, based partly on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural-Urban Commuting Area Codes. RUCA codes assign a census tract with a number between 1 and 10, with "rurality" increasing along with the code. The five categories are:

  • Rural: fewer than 16 housing units/square mile.
  • Small-town: 16-24 housing units/square mile and a RUCA of 4 and up.
  • Exurban: 16-64 units/square mile and a RUCA less than 4.
  • Suburban: 65-1,600 units/square mile and a RUCA less than 4.
  • Urban: more than 1,600 units/square mile and a RUCA less than 4.

These numbers place 54% of American Indians and Alaska Natives in rural and small-town areas, 30% in exurban and suburban, and only 16% in urban.

These differences don't change the Census Bureau finding that only a bit more than half of Natives on Tribal lands have access to broadband internet. But they do suggest that the issues the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program aims to address may be bigger than the original research suggests.

Has the TBCP Succeeded?

The Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program has been a general, but only partial, success. The grant money that has gone out is currently working to make a difference in underserved areas of the U.S. population. But the demand is higher than Congress originally planned.

After the initial $1 billion in funding became available, the program received $5 billion dollars worth of project proposals. Lawmakers added another $2 billion dollars to the program in 2021 (for a total of $3 billion total), but that's still not enough to fund every request.

Whether the TBCP eventually succeeds in addressing and fixing the digital divide among American Indian and Alaska Native populations largely depends on its ability to provide additional funding for both proposed and future projects.

  • Who is affected by the digital divide?

    Realistically, the digital divide affects everyone. It directly impacts people in remote areas and those who can't afford internet access by cutting them out of information and services. But it can also affect people who do have internet service by separating them from friends and family who don't have access, limiting markets for businesses, and other issues that can arise when one wection of a population can't contact or interact with another.

  • How does the digital divide affect education?

    Increasingly, education has a technological focus, including simply using the internet for research. Children without access who aren't able to complete tasks at home must rely on free sources like libraries or, if those aren't available, they risk falling behind their classmates.

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