Too much federal money for tribal broadband?
Biden administration & tribes say more is needed to correct systemic neglect.
WASHINGTON — The Biden administration and tribes are pushing back against perceptions that tribes have received too much federal money to build out fiber-optic and broadband infrastructure in remote locations.
A Sept 5. Wall Street Journal article, titled, “The $53,000 Connection: The High Cost of High-Speed Internet for Everyone,” highlighted this issue of bubbling political tension, noting that the administration plans to spend “an average cost of $53,000 for each household and workplace connected” with fiber-optic cable on Nebraska’s Winnebago Tribe alone.
“That amount exceeds the assessed value of some of the homes getting hookups, property records show,” the article reports. “While most connections will cost far less, the expense to reach some remote communities has triggered concerns over the ultimate price tag for ensuring every rural home, business, school and workplace in America has the same internet that city dwellers enjoy.”
Blair Levin, a top communications policy official in the Clinton and Obama administrations who is currently an equity research analyst, said that the federal government would get more bang for its buck by forgoing broadband for remote areas, including tribal reservations.
“The problem is, money is not infinite,” Levin told the WSJ. “If you’re spending $50,000 to connect a very remote location, you have to ask yourself, would we be better off spending that same amount of money to connect [more] families?”
Tribal leaders fervently resist that notion, saying they have been perennially placed at the back of the line in receiving federal infrastructure funds, despite many reservations being forcibly moved to remote areas by the federal government.
Remote and poor tribes have been especially perturbed by the lack of equity in attention to their multi-fold, federally-created problems over many decades.
“Why wouldn’t we as a tribe deserve the same internet service that you guys have in the cities?” Sunshine Thomas-Bear, the Winnebago Tribe’s historic preservation officer, told the WSJ. “We are reliant on internet service just as much as anyone else.”
Pots of pandemic-related broadband monies dedicated to tribes amount to over $3.5 billion and counting during the Biden administration. These monies have largely come from the U.S. Commerce Department, but the Treasury, Interior and Agriculture Departments — as well as the Federal Communications Commission — have additionally provided hundreds of millions in combined internet-focused funding.
Some policymakers have been asking of late whether tribes are receiving too much money without the ability to spend it in a timely fashion — and whether the cost is even worth it.
Commerce officials scoff at that notion. They tell Indigenous Wire that such money for tribes on this front is long overdue, and Secretary Gina Raimondo has told tribal leaders that she will resist pressure from lawmakers to claw back dedicated tribal funding.
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