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Navajo President: We Are at Bottom of Digital Chasm

Navajo Nation president Jonathan Nez addressed Congress Wednesday on the digital divide in tribal communities.

Navajo Nation president Jonathan Nez addressed Congress Wednesday on the digital divide in tribal communities.

The lack of affordable, high-speed broadband is a "significant impediment to the Navajo Nation’s growth and survival," Jonathan Nez, president of the Navajo Nation, told Congress Wednesday. 

Nez was a witness at a House Energy & Commerce Committee hearing on “Addressing the Urgent Needs of Our Tribal Communities.” 

Broadband was clearly one of those pressing needs. 

Related: COVID-19-Related Broadband Funding Bill Introduced

"The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that telework, telehealth, distance learning, skills training, and job opportunities, all depend on access to broadband, at home, at schools, in libraries, and in the workplace," he told the committee. "With the closure of the Navajo Nation’s main library branch in Window Rock, Arizona, the 110 Chapter Houses that serve as branch libraries and all the schools and universities located within the borders of the Navajo Nation, residents are struggling to have consistent and reliable access to broadband." 

Citing the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, Nez said that 60% of Navajo Nation’s residents lack fixed internet access, and what there is is a "patchwork of service providers that results in sporadic to non-existent connectivity." 

"I am frustrated to report that over half of our 110 Navajo communities lack any broadband access," he said, with the Navajo Nation not just on the wrong side of the digital divide, but "at the bottom of a digital chasm." 

But Nez said that with the help of Congress he thought they would be able to close that digital divide. 

Nez said the nation is finalizing a broadband plan and a network that would cost in the neighborhood of $300 million. He said the keys to reaching all of his people were "1) partnering with the Nation in connection with grants, subsidies, and other incentives to vet the recipient and the conditions of such awards to the recipient; 2) more awards of such grants and subsidies; and 3) streamlined rules and regulation by the Nation to allow for easier and faster, but responsible, deployment of towers and communications equipment on the Nation lands." 

E&C Chairman Frank Pallone

E&C Chairman Frank Pallone

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), chairman of the committee, focused his questioning on the digital divide because he said it was so "stark" on tribal lands. He said that given the impact of COVID-19, the lack of reliable high-speed internet means tribal lands are left out of healthcare services, education, employment opportunities, civic engagement and more, adding: "It is just unacceptable." 

Pallone pointed out that in the Moving Forward Act Democrats had allocated $5 billion to the FCC's E-Rate schools and libraries advanced communications subsidy program, with a specific guarantee for tribal schools and libraries. 

He asked if the Navajo Nation would benefit if that became law. 

Nez said the answer was "absolutely." But he also said that they were more focused on getting broadband into the home given that they were encouraging their people to shelter in place via stay-at-home orders. "If people are staying home, they will have to go to these libraries or chapter houses, which may get them exposed to the virus," he warned. "Our focus is to get high-speed into the homes where students could connect to their schools."

Related: Pai Says E-Rate Can't Go to Home Connectivity

Currently, the FCC interprets the E-Rate mandate from Congress as not allowing the money to be used for home broadband, but the Moving Forward Act would change that. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said he would be happy to use the E-Rate for home connectivity, but Congress will need to change the language, which currently confines it to classrooms (and libraries).