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FCC may use "tribal priority" radio model to bring wireless to Indian country

Last month the Federal Communications Commission announced new rules that will give Native Americans “tribal priority” when it comes to applying for radio licenses. Now the agency may extend that principle to wireless licenses as well. Here’s what FCC Chair Julius Genachowski told the National Congress of Native Americans today:

“The Commission recently adopted rules giving priority to Tribes in getting broadcast radio licenses in Tribal communities. These rules will give precedence to federally-recognized American Indian Tribes and Alaska Native Villages that want to set up new radio stations that serve communities on Tribal lands. Many of the comments we received in the broadband context encouraged the FCC to establish a similar priority for wireless licenses. The National Broadband Plan will recommend that the Commission look at expanding any Tribal priority policy to include the process for licensing fixed and mobile wireless licenses covering Tribal lands.”

That’s the National Broadband Plan that the FCC will release on March 16, BTW. This can’t come too soon as far as I’m concerned. Broadband penetration out on the res is somewhere between five and ten percent, according to FCC stats. Even plain old telephone penetration is only around 65 percent.

On top of that, Genachowski says the NBP will propose:

· Creating a separate Tribal Broadband Fund to support sustainable deployment and adoptionprograms in Indian Country;

· Providing funding to upgrade connectivity for federal facilities on Tribal lands,  including those managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Indian Education, and the Indian Health Service; and

· Allowing more members of the Tribal community to share connectivity funded by the E-rate and Rural Health Care programs.

Those last programs come out of the FCC’s Universal Service Fund. The Health Care program finances connectivity for rural medical centers; E-Rate offers cash to wire up schools and libraries. Despite the huge digital divide, there’s a lot of really creative wireless stuff going on in Indian country. Hopefully this will bring out more.

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