Heinrich: Connecting tribal communities to high-speed internet

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich

For some Americans today, logging on to the internet is as easy as going home and turning on the lights. Students can browse the internet and do their homework on their laptops or at local libraries. However, in parts of New Mexico, and especially in tribal communities, a lack of access to high-speed broadband internet connections is leaving far too many of our children unable to learn and compete on an even playing field. 

An estimated 80 percent of New Mexicans who live in rural tribal lands still lack consistent access to high-speed broadband internet. We urgently need to provide the resources necessary to close this digital divide between tribal communities and the rest of the nation.

That’s why I introduced the bipartisan Tribal Connect Act this week with Senator Dean Heller (R-Nev.) to steer much-needed federal investments to tribal communities to ensure that every single child can access high-speed internet. The Tribal Connect Act will make sure funding and resources from the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Schools and Libraries Program—known as E-Rate— reach tribal communities that need help expanding high-speed internet access.

Over the last twenty years, the E-Rate program has provided billions of dollars of discounts to public schools and libraries across the nation to help them obtain high-speed internet access at affordable rates. Earlier this year, I hosted a listening session with members of the Pueblos of Cochiti, Jemez, Zia, Santa Ana, San Felipe, and Santo Domingo, who received support through this program to bring broadband connectivity to their communities through their tribal libraries. 

The results were positive. Everett Chavez, Tribal Administrator of Santo Domingo, said, “Pueblo broadband availability and presence will bring about tremendous benefit to our rural tribal communities, and will provide critical impetus toward tribal community development initiatives.”

Unfortunately, the current application process and eligibility requirements for E-Rate funds do not reflect the unique challenges and needs in Indian Country, leading to complications for many tribes who try to apply for it. Although over 90 percent of public libraries throughout the nation have received these FCC funds to support improved internet access, the National Congress of American Indians estimates that only 15 percent of tribal libraries have received any of this critical funding. 

The Tribal Connect Act will enable more tribal libraries to apply for E-Rate support. It will also establish a new pilot program at the FCC that will allow tribes who don’t have tribal libraries to designate another tribally-owned anchor institution such as a chapter house or community center as eligible to apply for support to provide broadband connectivity for students and members of the community.

We must do all we can to make sure all of our children, no matter where they live or go to school, can learn the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century. I remain committed to putting aside partisan politics in Washington to find ways to make forward-looking investments like this in New Mexico’s future.