COVID Merits Delay In Tribal Spectrum Giveaway, FCC Told

By Kelcee Griffis
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Law360 (July 22, 2020, 4:53 PM EDT) -- Tribal advocates are calling on the Federal Communications Commission to delay the close of a planned spectrum giveaway in the coveted 2.5 GHz band, saying that the coronavirus pandemic has made it difficult for tribes to learn about opportunities to use the airwaves.

In an emergency motion posted Wednesday, the National Congress of American Indians, tribal insurance provider AMERIND Risk and the Southern California Tribal Chairmen's Association asked the FCC to keep open the application window for Native American tribes seeking to claim valuable 2.5 GHz spectrum licenses until next year.

According to the motion, which advocacy group Public Knowledge also joined, closing the application window in August as originally scheduled would compound hardships inflicted by the coronavirus.

"[T]he ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic, which began almost simultaneously with the opening of the Tribal Window on February 3, have impacted American Indians and Alaska Natives on Tribal lands harder than any other community in America, a situation further aggravated by the lack of reliable broadband on Tribal lands," the motion says. "Unless the Commission extends the Tribal Window, hundreds of eligible Tribal nations will miss this unique opportunity to provide 5G service to their people."

In February, the FCC officially kicked off a six-month period during which tribes may apply for free licenses in the 2.5 GHz band that have long sat unassigned. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai called the opportunity " a game-changer" for very remote areas that lack fiber connections or reliable mobile service to finally get online using wireless internet technology. Tribes that claim licenses must be able to put the spectrum to use and meet certain build-out milestones after two and five years of obtaining the licenses, the FCC previously said.

The spectrum at issue is part of the so-called Educational Broadband Service, which was long reserved for institutions with an educational mission. The FCC voted last July to remove that designation and auction off many of the yet-unassigned licenses to commercial carriers, but it plans to let tribes claim free licenses in their areas first.

According to the petition, many of the activities necessary to comply with the FCC's procedures for claiming the licenses have become difficult if not impossible to accomplish during the pandemic. For example, "dedicated tribal government staff must put themselves at risk of infection by returning to their closed offices, or by driving hours to find an available source of broadband, so that they may consult with Commission staff or other federal agencies," the petition said.

In fact, tribal governments have been so mired by baseline pandemic responses that "hundreds of eligible tribal nations have only recently learned about the availability of the Tribal Window," according to the petition.

Given the unforeseen circumstances, the FCC should extend the filing deadline until February 1, 2021, the groups said.

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