Who’s Who

Improving connectivity in Indian Country has taken the sustained advocacy and collective effort. This timeline of tribal broadband was compiled through interviews with some of the leaders in the field, some conducted in-person and some over Zoom.

Meet our participants
Geoff Blackwell
Chief Strategy Officer, AMERIND Risk Management Corporation. Two-Time Former FCC Regulator, including the former founding Chief of the Office of Native Affairs and Policy.
Irene Flannery
Former FCC Regulator and Director of AMERIND Critical Infrastructure.
Dr. Traci Morris
Executive Director of the American Indian Policy Institute, Arizona State University.
Matt Rantanen
Director of Technology, Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association.
Loris Taylor
President/CEO of Native Public Media.
Danae Wilson
Assistant Director for Broadband, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; Formerly Manager of the Department of Technology Services for the Nez Perce tribe.


This timeline of tribal broadband in the United States begins with the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the period when the term “digital divide” was first coined, to the recent passage of the The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, 2021 – 22, which established the nearly $3 billion in direct funding for the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program. Over these 25 years, we track the major legislations and regulations by the federal government, as well as the critical research and advocacy by Indian Country to push for the resources and policies that would better connect tribal lands


The Telecommunications Act of 1996 signed by President Clinton, the first major overhaul in telecommunications law since 1934. Section 706(a) of the law directed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to encourage the deployment on a “reasonable and timely basis” of advanced telecommunications to all Americans. But as Geoff Blackwell, the former founding Chief of the Office of Native Affairs and Policy at the FCC describes, the passage of the act had not considered or involved tribal nations.


In a nod to how tribes were overlooked in the Telecommunications Act, in 1997 Bill Richardson introduced the Native American Telecommunications Act that aimed to promote:

“greater telecommunications and information services to Native Americans.”


Also in 2000, the FCC created the Tribal Lifeline Program, after a series of field hearings and rule-making to address the low-rate of telephone penetration on tribal lands. A 1995 Statistical Brief had found that 53% of homes on reservations did not have telephones.


The FCC released a Tribal Policy Statement, which crucially acknowledged a government-to-government relationship between the FCC and tribal nations. Geoff describes the importance of the policy.


The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) established their Tech and Telecom Subcommittee. Their resolutions, some of which are highlighted here demonstrate how NCAI has served as an essential space for discussion and advocacy on broadband and related issues in the past 20 years. Matt Rantanen, the Director of Technology for the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association and the Co-Chair of NCAI’s Tech and Telecom subcommittee, recalls one of his first efforts to advocate specifically for tribal broadband needs. As Irene Flannery, Former FCC Regulator explained, at the time, despite FCC’s growing engagement with tribes, the Universal Service Fund had limited focus on tribal needs.

2000 - 2004

The tribal policy statement ushered in a further period of outreach and engagement with Native Nations. The FCC conducted visits, consultations and some regional conferences called Indian Telecommunications Training Initiatives. In 2004, then-chairmen Michael K. Powell highlighted these outreach efforts and reiterated the need for an:

“enduring discourse on how a federal agency and Tribal governments can continually work together.”


Like NCAI, Native Public Media was another critical space for advocacy and coordination on broadband issues, but it came to broadband through a focus on radio and spectrum. As Loris Taylor, President and CEO of Native Public Media and Danae Wilson, the Former Manager of the Department of Technology Services for the Nez Perce tribe now at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy explain.

In response to the Great Recession, The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 appropriated $7.2 billion for the expansion of rural broadband, including $4.4 billion under the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grants and $2.5 billion to the RUS/USDA Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP) for grants, loans and grant/loan combinations. However, once again, none of this funding was specifically earmarked for tribal lands.The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that six tribal authorities received BTOP grants and $179.2 million of the $2.9 billion awarded for BIP, went to projects serving Tribal Lands, Tribal Organizations, American Indians, and Alaska Natives. Danae, who won a BTOP grant for the Nez Perce tribe eventually and Matt who went on to secure a BIP grant for the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association reflect on how these grants did not seem intended for tribes.


Although tribal leaders highlighted the connectivity challenges on their lands, there had been little systematic data collected quantifying and demonstrating the broadband needs in Indian Country. Native Public Media and the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute’s issued the first major report on technology use, access, and adoption in Native American lands. One of the authors of the study, Dr. Traci Morris talks about how the problems and lessons they encountered then remain salient today. 


Also in 2010, after significant advocacy from tribal nations, the FCC established the Office of Native Affairs and Policy (ONAP). Loris and Geoff, who was the first Chief of the office, explain the significance of the dedicated office.


In addition to the funding streams, the American Recovery and Reinvestment act also directed the FCC to create a plan to improve internet access in the United States.

The Connecting America: The National Broadband Plan was unveiled on March 16, 2010. In the lead up to the plan, NCAI advocated for ensuring tribal priorities were taken into account, including calling for a Tribal Broadband Plan within the National Broadband Plan and Enhanced Tribal Lands Broadband Program within the Universal Service Fund. The plan recommended that the FCC consider expanding any Tribal priority policy from radio to broadband spectrum and also recommended that Congress consider establishing a Tribal Broadband Fund to support sustainable broadband deployment and adoption on Tribal lands.


NCAI Resolution Promoting Tribal Nation Access and Use of Spectrum for Communications Services

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The Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museum issued a report on Digital Inclusion in Native Communities Initiative, examining and emphasizing the capacity of tribal libraries to drive digital inclusion for tribal citizens.

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NCAI Resolution Support for the Creation of a ‘Tribal Priority’ in E-Rate Funding for Tribal Libraries and Schools

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NCAI Resolution Urging the Federal Communications Commission to Improve Access to Spectrum Licenses for Tribal Nations

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NCAI Resolution Calling on the FCC to Comprehensively Improve its Broadband Data to Ensure Tribal Lands are Connected to Broadband

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The GAP issued a report calling on the FCC to take efforts to Promote Tribal Access to Spectrum.

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Following the years of advocacy by Indian Country, the FCC opened the Tribal Priority Window to ease their access unassigned 2.5 GHz spectrum over their Tribal lands, subject to buildout requirements. Geoff and Irene address the long period of work that led up to this moment, its welcome reception among Tribal nations, while also acknowledging that this is only a partial step towards addressing connectivity needs in Indian Country.


In the wake of the pandemic, the federal government made significant investments in broadband infrastructure, for the first time setting aside direct funding for tribes. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 created the $980 million Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program and the 2022 Infrastructure Improvement and Jobs Act added an additional $2 billion towards that program. Years after tribes raised the need for direct funding, there is significant investment available for them to address their own connectivity needs. Irene and Matt credit this change to the continued and renewed advocacy by the tribes and talk about the work still to be done.


In 2022, some 20 years after Matt first advocated about the issue to the FCC, they clarified the definition of “library” in the e-rate program to explicitly include tribal libraries.