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Full-Power Spectrum Allocation – and Robust Native Participation – Vital to Our Wireless Future

By: Chris James

Broadband connectivity has become an indispensable fixture of our daily lives over the past several years. Just as the pandemic forced us to adjust our programming and outreach, it forced American Indian enterprises to rapidly adapt to the demands of online business. It highlighted the need for robust, resilient wireless networks to keep our communities and businesses supported and connected.

Next-generation wireless technology will empower the next generation of Native leaders to leverage the new digital economy to expand their reach and potential, and wireless itself can be a source of economic development. From 2015 to 2019, the rate of 4G coverage growth for tribal lands outpaced that of rural areas and the nation overall, but more can be done to help guarantee Tribal Nations and Native businesses have the connectivity necessary to participate and prosper in our evolving digital ecosystem.

Spectrum is critical to our mobile networks, and smart spectrum policy is the key to ensuring Native American and tribally-owned businesses are able to share in the economic opportunities enabled by wireless networks. The first step towards improved connectivity is supporting the auction of more exclusive-use, licensed spectrum operating at full power levels.

Exclusive-use, licensed spectrum auctions offer the assurance wireless providers need to invest in network buildout in tribal areas. Furthermore, the billions of dollars generated through these auctions could be allocated towards broadband grants and subsidies to support growing and enhancing tribal-area networks.

However, exclusive-use spectrum provides the most fiscal and functional benefits when it is allocated at full power levels.

Spectrum allocated at full power levels boosts network capacity while requiring fewer cell sites. This makes all the difference for tribal land, where terrain can limit viable placement options for cell sites, and especially in western lands, where low population density requires making the most of every dollar spent on wireless network investment.

To put the scale of these different power levels into perspective, a recent paper published by Rysavy Research found that up to seven times the number of low-powered cell sites would be needed to provide the coverage area capabilities of one full-powered cell site in rural areas. Additional cell sites mean additional costs, making it more burdensome for providers to invest in Tribal area networks.

Beyond full-power allocations, spectrum policy must be inclusive and recognize that Indian Country is not just an end-user but can also be a key partner in deploying spectrum and building out robust wireless networks. Though it may come as a surprise to some, tribal and Native-owned companies have been major participants in previous wireless auctions and buildouts, including in some of the largest markets in the U.S.

Many enter the market through the FCC’s Designated Entity Program, which provides bid credits for small and minority-owned companies that participate in spectrum auctions. Unfortunately, changes to the program advanced by the FCC in 2015 make it much harder for Native-owned companies to be successful in a market with otherwise high barriers to entry. Moving forward, the FCC should re-examine its Designated Entity policies to ensure those who stand to benefit most from wireless expansion can also participate in it.

Access to new business opportunities in the digital age demand broader access to broadband connectivity and broadband economic development strategies. Our spectrum policy should be cost-effective, efficient, and inclusive; not prohibitive, uneconomical, and selective.

As the voice for Native business, we encourage officials to support thoughtful policies that will help ensure the whole of Indian Country and its businesses have the wireless network access and opportunities needed to close the digital divide and compete in the growing digital economy. Full-powered, licensed spectrum is vital to that goal.