- By H Trostle – Senior Policy Analyst, Center for Indian Country Development
- Economic Development
Despite broadband’s critical and growing importance, high-speed Internet access is often inadequate or unavailable on tribal lands. This gap in broadband coverage is exacerbated by inaccurate data about Indian Country that are reflected in the broadband maps disseminated through the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
[This story was reported and published by the Center for Indian Country Development at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Used with permission.]
Previous CICD research revealed that accurate Indian Country broadband data are difficult to develop. If policymakers can’t trust the data and maps, resources for broadband expansion cannot be effectively allocated.
Map accuracy matters for broadband deployment
In late 2022 and mid-2023, the FCC released the new National Broadband Map and new Broadband Funding Map to comply with the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability (DATA) Act. While better than previous versions, the maps still present challenges for tribes.
The National Broadband Map and the Broadband Funding Map, collectively called the DATA maps, are the most granular maps of U.S. broadband deployment. The National Broadband Map attempts to show every house, apartment building, and small business that could receive broadband service (i.e., in urban, suburban, and rural areas, including locations that are remote but not extremely remote). It doesn’t show broadband availability for community anchor institutions like schools, libraries, and government buildings. For every location on the National Broadband Map, the Broadband Funding Map marks whether it received federal funding prior to the distribution of the most recent broadband funding program, known as the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program. The DATA maps are continuously updated by the FCC.
Knowing where broadband is available and where broadband programs have previously been deployed determines where federal resources should go to close the digital divide. As stated in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, the maps function as “the centralized authoritative source of information on funding made available by the Federal Government for broadband infrastructure deployment in the United States.”* Given the centrality of these maps to broadband infrastructure deployment now and into the future, their accuracy matters.
Concerns surrounding maps’ reliability
We spoke with three tribally owned Internet service providers (ISPs) to learn how they view the new maps and their usefulness on tribal lands: Acorn Wireless, which is owned by the Hoopa Valley tribe in Northern California; Standing Rock Telecom, which is owned by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota and South Dakota; and a third that requested anonymity. The views expressed here are those of the individuals we interviewed and not necessarily those of the tribal governments serving these reservations.
Three primary concerns repeated throughout our interviews were:
- The FCC maps do not necessarily match the reality on the ground,
- The mapping process may limit the sustainability of the networks, and
- The maps are no guarantee of effective broadband program deployment.
The FCC maps are built on a foundational database known as the Fabric, which is stitched together from many data sources, such as parcel data and satellite imagery. While the Fabric is useful for urban areas and rural areas to an extent, it can be inaccurate or even missing information for tribal lands. In some reservation communities, broadband availability is overstated—an ISP (usually a satellite provider) claims every location can receive high-speed Internet service. On other reservations, entire newly constructed housing developments are not on the broadband map because the data source has not been updated with the latest information. In other locations, the address data on the map are incorrect. Major data gaps in basic information are a problem that is unique to tribal lands.
Linnea Jackson, the general manager at Hoopa Valley Public Utilities District, works on Acorn Wireless, a new project to connect the Hoopa Valley Tribe’s 92,000 acres. Hoopa Valley is considered 100 percent served on the map, but Jackson said many households are left out. Some wireless ISPs may have marked every location within a certain radius of their towers as served, not accounting for heavy tree coverage and hilly terrain, which can partially block wireless signals. Satellite ISPs may have also kept every location as served, again not accounting for the tree coverage. Jackson is concerned that if tribal lands are considered 100 percent served, federal and state agencies will direct grants elsewhere.
In another case, the general manager at the anonymous ISP said addresses on the FCC Fabric map were incorrect, making it impossible for the ISP to submit data on broadband availability at each location. The ISP’s employees were especially concerned because their tribally owned address data reflected 911 addresses and matched the address data held at the county, while the Fabric map showed address data from a different, incorrect source. The situation underscored an important reality in Indian Country: Data about tribal lands that do not come from the tribes themselves are often inaccurate. The anonymous ISP continues to provide service using its information but is seeking ways to correct the address data.
There is only one line of backhaul (a line that connects an ISP to the broader Internet) into the Hoopa Valley. This makes the Acorn Wireless network vulnerable. The amount of backhaul will also not be enough to support the community’s needs in the future. If the maps do not reflect changing on-the-ground realities, planning for network sustainability will be difficult.
While maps are the first step to gaining funding, they are no guarantee of effective broadband deployment. Standing Rock Telecom’s General Manager Fred McLaughlin said some locations on the tribal lands they serve were marked for federal funding through a private ISP grant application under the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. However, the FCC later pulled the award from the private ISP because its technology couldn’t meet the federal funding requirements. The unserved locations were already marked as funded when other grant deadlines approached, so the locations went unfunded. Until recently, many FCC funding programs did not require that tribes (in both rural and urban areas) be informed of when their lands would be marked for funding, giving tribal ISPs little chance to participate in the programs. Due to a policy shift, the FCC now informs tribes of these programs and if ISPs are being given funding for tribal areas.
Complex challenge process can’t correct underlying boundary data
The National Broadband Map features a portal where states, tribes, ISPs, and individuals can “challenge” inaccurate data. A “Fabric Challenge” questions a house’s or business location’s accuracy. A “Fixed Availability Challenge” questions the accuracy of broadband availability at a particular location. These challenge processes can prevent overstatement of broadband coverage and provide accuracy for the DATA maps. However, the processes are onerous for tribes, often requiring the assistance of a lawyer, and can be slow for large geographic areas. Tribes may be unable to help the FCC correct its maps continuously. Jackson explained, “If the FCC mapping tool is going to be the guiding principle, it is a very scary thought to me. We have put blood, sweat, and tears into building this network. Let’s say we build this big, beautiful network, but how are we going to maintain that five years from now without being able to access grants?”
The anonymous tribally owned ISP that we interviewed had difficulty challenging the data. Trying to convert the tribally owned data into the format needed for the FCC broadband map was a problem, and the data were then wrongly reflected on the map.
The boundaries for tribes can also be incorrect because there is no consistent definition of Indian Country among federal agencies. Rather than use more accurate tribal maps and data, the FCC often uses other federal agencies’ mapping information—for example, from the U.S. Census Bureau or Bureau of Indian Affairs. Competing federal definitions of tribal lands create inconsistencies. Several federal broadband programs depend on knowing the boundaries of tribal lands. Tribal lands often qualify for more funding than non-tribal lands, and inconsistencies in defining tribal lands create problems accessing this funding. For example, the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program offers a $75 monthly subsidy for households on tribal lands and a $30 subsidy to other households. Across the United States, households that are on tribal lands have faced trouble receiving the $75 subsidy because the maps show their address as outside of tribal lands. As under other federal programs, there is no clear way to challenge the boundary data.
Where do we go from here?
Narrowing the digital divide on tribal lands requires reliable, accurate information about broadband availability. Our interviews indicate that such precise information is now in short supply. Reviewing maps and improving the challenge processes are critical for deploying and sustaining broadband networks in Native communities. Additional resources and technical assistance to improve the accuracy of the new maps in Indian Country would go far in closing the digital divide. Currently, the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program allows tribes to self-certify that their lands do not have broadband access, but other programs, including BEAD, make no such allowances. Tribal self-certification for individual programs is not a sustainable solution for the systemic issues with the DATA maps that guide federal funding. Without serious support in improving the maps, broadband expansion in Indian Country may sadly be—as described by Standing Rock Telecom’s Fred McLaughlin—a “Cadillac with no gas.”