FCC's Pai: More Must Be Done to Close Tribal Lands' Digital Divide

FCC chair Ajit Pai said it is his job to identify and acknowledge the digital divide, and more needs to be done to close that divide on tribal lands.

Pai spoke Wednesday (June 14) at a conference of the National Congress of American Indians in Uncasville, Conn.

"We’ll never address the challenges of isolated communities if we don’t first acknowledge them," Pai said. "And without question, rural Americans, including many in Indian Country, disproportionately find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide. They deserve our collective attention and they certainly have my personal attention."

Pai said it was important to meet community leaders on their own turf.

"It’s critical that the FCC engage with groups like NCAI, but to me, there’s no substitute for actually meeting with tribal leaders where they live," he said.

Prior to the conference, Pai had met with representatives of various tribes on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota last week during a five-state speaking and listening tour.

Among the steps the FCC is taking to close that divide, he said at the conference, are providing about $6 billion in Connect America and Mobility fund subsidies for broadband in unserved areas, including tribal lands, including $340 million to bring 4G LTE to tribal lands. There will also be a Remote Areas Fund that kicks in when the Connect America and Mobility Fund monies are used up, with additional money for still-unserved areas.

He also cited his proposal to remove obstacles to broadband buildouts -- which includes streamlining tower siting and historic preservation and environmental protection reviews -- though he said he had heard and recognized the need to protect "sacred properties," and would "continue to do so.

"[L]et me assure you that we also share a common commitment to respecting your history," he said.

Pai even waxed poetic. Quoting legendary Lakota warrior Crazy Horse, he said, "A very great vision is needed, and the man who has it must follow it as the eagle seeks the deepest blue of the sky."

Pai said he did not pretend as grand a vision as Crazy Horse, and hoped for the "courage and focus" of the eagle, but he said he would work for opportunity for tribal members "now and to come."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.