This article compares funding and other broadband policies for rural and Indigenous regions in Canada and in the United States. It also includes examples of Indigenous engagement in the policy and regulatory processes in both countries. This research brings to light instances of policy diffusion between Canada and the United States, and demonstrates how Indigenous groups can contribute to more inclusive forms of telecommunications policy development. The article concludes with lessons from the Canadian and U.S. policy and regulatory experiences that could be relevant for broadband policy development in other countries with rural and Indigenous regions.
This article compares funding and other policies to extend broadband in Indigenous regions in Canada and the United States, and Indigenous efforts to gain access to rural broadband in both countries. It focuses primarily on regulatory initiatives by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) in Canada and by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States. We also examine examples of Indigenous engagement in the policy and regulatory processes in both countries. It should be noted that many of the policies and initiatives discussed in this article apply not only to Indigenous communities or regions, but to a wider population (rural areas, nonprofit organizations, etc.), but are particularly relevant for Indigenous populations.
Access to broadband is necessary to participate in our increasingly digital society—for access to services such as education and training, healthcare, government programs and services, online banking, ecommerce, community development, and small business entrepreneurship. These services are particularly important for rural/remote primarily Indigenous communities across North America. In northern Canada, these settlements, ranging in population from a few hundred to a few thousand, typically have no year-round road access, and may be hundreds of kilometers from larger regional “hub” communities. Incomes are typically low or seasonal, and costs of living for housing, food, utilities, and fuel are high. Similar contexts are found in Alaska. Conditions vary in “Indian country” in other parts of the United States, but Tribal communities also typically have limited or no access to broadband, and many residents subsist on low orseasonal incomes.
As in other remote and developing regions, communications providers are challenged by high costs, relatively low revenues, great distances, and in the North of both countries, difficult terrain and extreme climate. These conditions confront not only major incumbents but also small local providers, including Indigenous Internet service providers (ISPs). Rural and Indigenous providers also face sectoral challenges such as increasing concentration of ownership, assertions of incumbent power, and regulatory emphasis on competition and market forces. Rapid technological innovation combined with widespread adoption of broadband-based services further compound the challenges faced by policymakers, regulators, and policy advocates attempting to keep pace with rapid change.1
Indigenous representatives and organizations in both countries recognize telecommunications facilities and services as key enabling resources to support the preservation and self-development of their citizens, communities, and societies. Some also view ownership and control of telecommunications as an important aspect of their sovereignty and self-determination. This recognition has resulted in the development of Indigenous connectivity advocates and service providers in both Canada and the United States, including projects concerning digital self-determination and network sovereignty.2 These advocates face participatory challenges that arise for small and nonprofit organizations during formal and legalistic policy consultation processes.3 Despite their unique perspective on the issues under consideration, these groups may lack access to timely, detailed information and have limited experience in formulating testimony and policy documents that meet government requirements. In some cases, such as jurisdiction on Indigenous lands, nation-to-nation relationships between Indigenous peoples and federal governments in both countries may also arise in telecommunications policy and regulatory contexts.
Our project is situated in a tradition of comparative telecommunications policy exchange and analysis that Rajabiun and Middleton (2018) argue “offers a unique window into broader international debates about strategy and policy in the transition to next generation networks” (p. 41).4 Recent scholarship in digital inclusion and telecommunications policy advocacy also shows the need to broaden our understanding of the groups engaged in such activities.5 Robinson et al. (2020) note that in the context of digital inclusion policy and practice, like-minded organizations and individuals are collaborating in ways that reflect a strong ethos of sharing and cooperation across low-resourced environments.6 Singh and Flyverbom’s (2016) discussion of networked discourses of participation in international ICT4D policy similarly stresses horizontal interactions and collaborations based on shared interests among policy actors (p. 695).7
These and related perspectives bring to light instances of policy diffusion, through which civil society actors working in neighboring jurisdictions compare and contrast challenges, barriers and best practices, with the overall goal of improving policy.8 For example, at the international scale, events such as the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) demonstrate efforts by civil society actors to engage in global Internetpolicy.9 Examples of policy diffusion also exist within national borders, such as among U.S. states.10
Hudson (2011, 2015a) discusses digital diversity and telecommunications policy engagement in Alaska,11 and broadband strategies for rural and developing regions in North America and beyond (2013).12 As well, Indigenous groups in countries such as the United States, Mexico, New Zealand/Aotearoa, and Canada have shared resources and expertise to further digital development initiatives to meet their self-determined interests. These activities are constrained by various factors. For example, as Rajabiun and Middleton (2018) point out, commonalities and divergences in the deployment and maintenance of telecommunications infrastructure are influenced by the strategic choices of telecommunications operators, funding and investment, regulatory institutions, and consumer preferences.13
In this article, we analyze regulatory proceedings and government policies concerning rural Indigenous/Tribal broadband from 2016 to the present in Canada and the United States including hearings and other regulatory consultations in Canada and initiatives of the FCC, National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), and Department of Agriculture in the United States concerning expanding and/or upgrading broadband in unserved and underserved rural and Indigenous/Tribal regions. We also include comments from interviews with Indigenous connectivity advocates in Canada and the United States. All interviews were conducted either with members of an Indigenous Nation/community or with people who work for an Indigenous organization. A full analysis of the interviews and related research will be the subject of a forthcoming paper.14
As community-engaged researchers, we have been directly involved in some of the policy activities described below.15 As advisors to Indigenous and other connectivity organizations, we are part of teams involving Indigenous colleagues who are directly involved in the research.16
There is an active community of Indigenous connectivity advocates in North America, some of whom work for Indigenous providers and have been engaged in connectivity policy development since the early days of the Internet.
In Canada, the Assembly of First Nations has issued several resolutions on connectivity regarding First Nations-led and -identified solutions (most recently Resolution 19/2020 Supporting First Nations with Connecting to the Internet).17 In the past, a national network of First Nations regional management organizations contributed to policy discussions regarding connectivity development, but the funding for that network ended and to date has not been reinstated.18 Some members of that network established the aforementioned FMCC, a national association of First Nations technology organizations that has intervened in a number of policyproceedings.19 At the provincial level, the First Nations Technology Council in British Columbia, Canada. has developed an Indigenous Digital Equity Strategy, which was described as a “roadmap for Indigenous communities, government, industry, and other members of the technology ecosystem to coordinate a comprehensive and collaborative approach to achieving digital equity, technological advancement, and economic reconciliation for Indigenous people in British Columbia.”20
In the United States, Indigenous involvement in connectivity policy development is through organizations such as the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), which has a telecommunications subcommittee, and organizations such as Native Public Media and the Broadband Hui, an informal organization of various stakeholders in broadband access in Hawai’i, which recently issued a Digital Equity Declaration.21 Through various avenues, U.S.-based Indigenous connectivity advocates have successfully advocated for policy changes such as the Tribal Priority Window for 2.5 GHz spectrum and Tribal eligibility for e-Rate funding.
The Indigenous Connectivity Summit (ICS), an annual event funded by the Internet Society (ISOC), provides an opportunity for Indigenous connectivity advocates from Canada and the United States to meet and discuss various policy and regulatory issues. These discussions have culminated in policy recommendations available on the ICS website.22 During these events, participants noted the importance of working with regional representatives in policy development, and of inviting regulators and policymakers to their communities to demonstrate local conditions as well as connectivity solutions developed by Indigenous groups.
Regulatory and Policy Organization and Participation
Policy and Regulatory Institutions and Mandates
There are similarities in the regulatory and policy structures in both countries, but also some relevant differences. Telecommunications is regulated only at the federal level in Canada, whereas in the United States, intrastate telecommunications services are regulated typically by state public utilities commissions. Interstate communications are the responsibility of the FCC, whose Canadian counterpart is the CRTC.
The mandate of the CRTC is regulation, whereas policy is considered the responsibility of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED, formerly Industry Canada) for telecommunications and Canadian Heritage for broadcasting. ISED is also responsible for spectrum in Canada. The CRTC states: “Our role is to implement the laws and regulations set by Parliamentarians who create legislation and departments that set policies.”23 However, the CRTC’s decisions often also constitute de facto policies, particularly concerning recent proceedings on broadband as a basic service for all Canadians.
In the United States, the FCC regulates interstate and international communications including spectrum, but is also a de facto policy maker, although the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in the Department of Commerce also plays a role in federal connectivity policies and funding.
Indigenous Representation in Regulatory Agencies
The FCC’s Office of Native Affairs and Policy (ONAP) in the Bureau of Consumer and Governmental Affairs was established in 2010 during the Obama administration.24 ONAP’s role is to assist the Commission in developing policies and programs to address the lack of adequate communications services on Tribal lands nationwide. “ONAP plans and leads the Commission’s outreach to Tribal governments and organizations, with the objective of increasing their awareness of, and participation in, Commission programs and proceedings.”25 Indigenous representatives have also been involved in the FCC Intergovernmental Affairs Committee and the FCC Native Nations Communications Task Force.
However, these initiatives have had at best mixed results to date. ONAP receives relatively little funding, and has a very small staff (no staff members are currently listed on its website, and the FCC’s 2022 Budget Proposal has no breakout for ONAP).26 However, ONAP’s responsibilities and support may increase under the Broadband DATA Act,27 which mandates a process through which state, local, and Tribal governments or entities may submit their own verified primary broadband-availability data and may challenge existing FCC data. The FCC has also stated that it intends to increase Tribal outreach, including through Tribal training workshops on data collection.28
In Canada, there is no counterpart dedicated to Indigenous issues in the CRTC or ISED. There are currently six regional CRTC commissioners representing the ten provinces and three territories, but none separately for the territories, which have significant Indigenous populations (about 23% in Yukon, 51% in the Northwest Territories, and 86% in Nunavut).29 However, the CRTC appointed its first Indigenous commissioner in 2019, representing Yukon and British Columbia. A lawyer and member of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation, she is the first Indigenous woman and first Yukon resident to be appointed to the Commission.30
In 2013, the CRTC held consultations in Inuvik (Northwest Territories) and Whitehorse (Yukon); more recently, hearings have been held only in Ottawa or online. Canadian Indigenous providers have noted the importance of regional representatives in other agencies regarding broadband development in their territories, including through such agencies as FedNor, the Canadian government’s economic development organization for Northern Ontario, and CanNor, the Canadian government’s economic development agency for the northern territories (Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut). An Indigenous connectivity advocate from Northern Ontario noted: “I really liked it when FedNor was handling broadband” since its staff had a better understanding of the geographic region and the requirements of the service providers operating there.
Indigenous Participation in Regulatory Proceedings
In both countries, Indigenous policy advocates, many of whom have learned how to engage in policy on the job, stated that involvement takes time, effort, and funds. In both countries, comments regarding legislation and regulatory consultations can be contributed online, but require time to prepare submissions and possibly fees for consultants or lawyers. There are also travel costs for in-person hearings or legislative testimony.
There is some financial support for participation in CRTC consultations in Canada, where, as authorized in31 the CRTC awards expenses for participation in its telecommunications proceedings for nonprofit organizations representing subscribers that meet certain criteria: “ . . . the Commission considers whether a costs applicant has participated in the proceeding in a responsible way and contributed to a better understanding of the matters considered by the Commission.” The costs are assessed on other parties in the proceedings, typically major incumbents and other commercial providers.
This funding provision has made it possible for Indigenous and consumer organizations to devote the time and expertise required to participate in CRTC proceedings, which may require several rounds of written interventions, interrogatories, and responses, as well as other filings and testimony. Indigenous communications organizations have received funding for participation in several CRTC consultations during the past decade.
There is no equivalent mechanism in the United States, although some foundations provide funding to enable nonprofit organizations to participate in FCC proceedings.
Rural Broadband Funding and Subsidies
Infrastructure (Capex) Funding
In both countries, several government agencies fund telecommunications infrastructure for rural, remote, and Tribal/Indigenous communities. This funding is typically fragmented across various departments and agencies. In the United States, funding may be from the FCC and NTIA, but also other agencies including the Department of Agriculture (Rural Development programs), also the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for telemedicine, Department of Education for online education, Department of the Interior for Tribal services, Homeland Security for Emergency Communications, and so on.32 State agencies may also fund telecommunications infrastructure projects.
The Biden administration has included $65 billion for broadband in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) enacted in November 2021.33 The IIJA established the Broadband Equity, Access, and Employment Program34 (BEAD), which appropriated $42.45 billion for states and other entities to use for broadband deployment, mapping, and adoption projects. Funds are included to build capacity in state broadband offices and to conduct outreach and coordination with local communities, including Tribal entities. Grants will also be awarded to construct and deploy broadband infrastructure.35
The IIJA included funding for several other broadband programs that are open to Native American entities. The Digital Equity Act Program’s priorities include low income, rural, and minority populations to address equity and digital inclusion.36 The Enabling Middle Mile Infrastructure Program is intended to encourage “the expansion and extension of middle mile infrastructure to reduce the cost of connecting unserved and underserved areas.” Among eligible entities are Tribal governments, other Tribal entities, utility and telecommunications co-operatives, and nonprofit organizations.37
Among other broadband funding programs that include rural and Tribal regions are the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), which will commit at least $20.4 billion over the next decade to support high-speed broadband networks in rural America38 (approved in 2020 by the previous administration) and NTIA’s $980 million Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, which is directed to Tribal governments to be used for broadband deployment on Tribal lands, as well as for telehealth, distance learning, broadband affordability, and digital inclusion. The Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program administered by NTIA also includes funding for Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) to purchase broadband Internet services and equipment, and to hire and train information technology (IT) staff.
Other sources include the Connect America Fund (CAF) Mobility Fund, which provides $300 million for mobile voice and broadband in high cost areas, plus $500 million per year in ongoing support. CAF includes a fund for Tribal areas that provides $50 million capital plus up to $100 million per year.39 Carriers serving remote Indigenous communities in Alaska have benefited substantially from these funds to upgrade and extend their services.40
Also in the United States, the Rural Development in the Department of Agriculture offers Community Connect Grants that fund the construction, acquisition, or leasing of facilities, spectrum, land, or buildingsused to deploy broadband service for residential and business customers and critical community facilities (such as public schools, fire stations, and public libraries). It also covers the cost of providing broadband service free of charge to the critical community facilities for 2 years. Finally, the Department of Agriculture administers Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grants which are available to Tribal and other Native entities to provide broadband in unserved rural areas.41
In Canada, several government agencies fund telecom infrastructure projects including ISED, the CRTC, Canadian Heritage, Indigenous and Northern Affairs, and others. Provincial and territorial agencies may also fund broadband infrastructure, for example, Ontario’s Improving Connectivity for Ontario (ICON) program42 and the Mackenzie Valley Fibre Link43 project in the Northwest Territories.
The two major federal sources of rural broadband funds in Canada are the CRTC, which established a Broadband Fund44 ($C750 million) to help implement its goals for universal broadband, and ISED, with programs such as the recent Universal Broadband Fund45 ($C2.75 billion), as well as earlier programs such as “Connect to Innovate,” and “Connecting Canadians.” These funds used a comparative selection process, which has resulted in funding for Indigenous providers in several regions, including Northwestern Ontario, Manitoba, and Alberta.46
The Canadian government’s Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program (ICIP) has also committed C$7.2 billion to broadband Internet infrastructure, with the goal of 98% of Canadians having high-speed Internet access by 2026, and 100% by 2030.47 (“High-speed Internet” is not defined.)
In both countries, key challenges for Indigenous providers may now be to identify broadband programs for which they are eligible, and then to locate and submit all the necessary information in the formats required by funders. As one Canadian Indigenous connectivity advocate noted:
“For every $100 dollars I get in funding, I have to spend $40 to hire somebody who can help me translate what it is they are asking me for, which is not fair, because the larger corporations have these people in-house: they have lawyers, they have accountants. I have just me.”48
Compounding this challenge are mapping errors and other problematic data that funders rely on to certify projects. Researchers point to problems in existing maps that may misrepresent or oversimplify information, or rely on supply-side availability data that may not reflect demand-sideconditions of end-users (access data).49 Limitations may include incorrect or missing street addresses, unincorporated communities, reliance on census block data, and other flaws. Supply-side data may not be publicly shared for reasons of commercial sensitivity or may aggregate large areas that overstate local access.
Both countries are trying to remedy these errors with more complete and updated data. The U.S. Congress directed the FCC to develop processes and procedures to collect, verify, and publish more precise data in the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability Act (Broadband DATA Act) of 2020.50 The FCC established a Broadband Data Task Force in 2021, and is in the process of collecting and publishing data from numerous sources including Native entities.51
In Canada, published data are available for geographic hexagons that cover areas of roughly 25 square km each. A spatial statistical model is being used to improve granularity. Currently, 2021 census data are not yet included, and some users have identified errors or omissions. For example, a Canadian Indigenous provider noted:
“We couldn’t even fill out the application form for Connect to Innovate funding, because one of our communities, according to ISED, did not exist . . . We had a heck of a challenge getting themto recognize that there were people living here. I don’t know where they got their information from.”52
From the end-user perspective, a rural Quebec resident stated:
“The data, which is used to determine funding has excluded 50% of the residents . . . They cannot obtain internet service at all, from any of the ISPs that serve the region.
This has been raised several times but to no avail. We will continue to be excluded from service as the map data is inaccurate and leads one to believe all households receive 50/10 service. We have been trying for two years with various ISPs and are left with no support and no solutions.”53
Allocation of Infrastructure (Capex) Funds
The FCC has relied on reverse auctions for allocating most rural infrastructure funding (as well as spectrum). For example, RDOF funds are to be allocated by reverse auction, with a focus on areas currently served by “price cap” carriers, along with areas that were not won in the CAF Phase II auction and other areas that do not currently receive any high-cost universal service support.54 Indigenous connectivity advocates argue that RDOF’s reverse auction limits access to funding for small and nonprofit Indigenous providers who must compete with large commercial carriers for projects serving Indigenous territories. In the words of one Indigenous connectivity advocate:
“We have the satellite companies who bid on these service areas and are getting federal funds to provide service over our reservations . . . And because they claimed our Tribal lands, we [Tribal providers] then cannot get federal funds, so we’re getting hit from both sides.”55
Much of the broadband funding from the IIFA is to be administered by the states rather than the federal government. Within the Act’s guidelines they can set their own criteria and methods to award grants.
Canada’s ISED has used reverse auctions for spectrum, but Canadian federal broadband funding programs have used a comparative selection (“beauty contest”) model. However, Ontario has announced that it will use a reverse auction for its recently announced funding program that is intended to provide a minimum service level of 50/10 Mbps for approximately 700,000 unserved or underserved homes by the end of 2025.56
Most small providers do not have the resources (finances and expertise) to participate in auctions. In Alaska, the result has been that auctions typically have only one applicant, usually a major incumbent, so that there are no actual benefits of competition from the auction format.57 There are no new entrants, and no incentives for lower costs or greater efficiencies. Some Canadian Indigenous entities have also recommended against use of reverse auctions for the CRTC’s Broadband Fund for similar reasons.58
Subsidies for Telecommunications Operations (Opex)
Here there is a major difference between the United States and Canada that has implications for Indigenous providers and customers of services in rural and Tribal/Indigenous communities. The United States provides several operational subsidy programs that target high-cost regions, schools and libraries, and low-income subscribers. We provide examples from Alaska below because Alaska has the highest percentage of Indigenous residents of any state (15%), and most of its more than 200 villages are Indigenous.
The FCC’s CAF (also referred to under Capex above) will ultimately replace all High Cost support. Eligible providers must offer both voice and broadband (previously, only voice services were required). For Alaska, the Commission adopted an “Alaska Plan” at the request ofseveral Alaska operators to provide Alaskan rate-of-return carriers with the option of receiving fixed amounts of support over the next 10 years to deploy and maintain their fixed and mobile networks.59
The Schools and Libraries Program (known as the E-Rate) allows qualified schools and libraries to request competitive bids to provide Internet connectivity. Most Alaska rural schools qualify for a subsidy of 84% or higher, based on demographic and geographic criteria (low income and rural location). These schools and libraries often become “anchor tenants” for communities, because the operator that wins the contract is assured of a major revenue stream for Internet services.60
The Rural Health Care Program subsidizes the difference between cost of rural connectivity (e.g., at rural hospital) and comparable cost in major city in the state where charges are usually substantially lower. Alaska has been a major beneficiary of this program, with subsidies greater than 95% of tariffed rates in some regions.
The Lifeline Program, which has provided subsidies for voice service for low-income subscribers since 1985, now also provides subsidies for broadband access.61
These and other Universal Service Funds (USF) have been critical for Alaska carriers serving remote Indigenous communities; they have received more than $3 billion in USF funding since 1998.62
The FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) is the sequel to the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, which also implemented additional subsidies for broadband services to low-income and Tribal Households in 2021, following the greatly increased demand for broadband access for online education and access to other services during the COVID-19pandemic.63 Participating providers are to make available discounts of up to $30 per month for Internet service and associated equipment to eligible households. On Tribal lands, the monthly discount may be up to $75 per month. Participating providers that also supply an eligible household with a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet may receive a single reimbursement of up to $100.64
However, some of these programs for low-income users have not been totally successful. Some eligible residents may find the programs difficult qualify for; some providers may not have publicized them effectively. And fraud has been a problem with Lifeline as unscrupulous companies have secured subsidies for Tribal community members without providing telecommunications services in return. For example:
“People are driving up in a pickup truck full of phones with a clipboard and signing every person in the household up for a Lifeline telephone and changing their last name and changing the database of their address, so that the database doesn’t catch the duplications, because you’re only supposed to have one phone per household. And so they’re signing up for multiple phones per household and they get the subsidy for every single phone. And they . . . roll up to a powwow and they give a phone to everyone . . . all these kids like 12 years old get a cell phone.”65
Canada has no national subsidies for low-income users, or for health or education services, although some government departments (provincial/territorial and federal) may provide funds in their budgets for telemedicine, Internet for schools and libraries, and so on. However, these government funds are not part of any overall policy, and are typically dependent on annual allocations from federal or provincial/territorial budgets.
The CRTC has also established a relatively small high-cost fund for Telecommunications Services Providers (TSPs) or groups of related TSPs with total annual operating revenues of $C10 million or more to subsidize provision of residential telephone service in high-cost serving areas (HCSAs), typically in rural and remote areas. In 2016, the CRTC stated that in order to help meet the new universal service objective, it would begin to shift the focus of its regulatory frameworks from wireline voice services to broadband Internet access services.66 The latest data available shows the amount of subsidies paid to local exchange carriers (LECs) was $C71.4 million to 25 companies in 2019, down from $C87.3 million to 29 companies in 2018.67 The CRTC then phased out its subsidies for residential voice service between 2019 and 2021.68 Broadband subsidies will be provided from a variety of sources including contributions from ILECs and the Broadband Fund.
Some Indigenous providers in Canada offer services to both residential and public service users, with the public service entities (schools, clinics, etc.) serving as anchor tenants, generating connectivity subsidies that can offset costs to serve residential customers. Examples include the Eeyou Communication Network serving Cree communities in northern Quebec, K-Net in northern Ontario, and Tamaani Internet Services in Nunavik (Arctic Quebec). However, other Indigenous providers that receive funds to deliver online public services have not been able to develop sufficient resources to extend to the rest of the community. In the words of one Indigenous provider:
“Two communities [that now have fiber-to-the-home networks] asked us to run their networks and we don’t have the capacity to . . . There’s no way we could support residential connectivity in the work we do. So we have to advise them that we can’t, but will continue to try to develop their capacity to do it.”69
In contrast, as noted above, the E-rate and Rural Health Care subsidies in the United States have helped to change the business model for providers in Alaska, so that the schools, libraries, and health centers have become anchor tenants generating predicable sources of revenue. As a result, providers have been able to justify further investments to upgrade residential connectivity in these villages.
In both countries, some major telecommunications and cable providers (e.g., Rogers70 in Canada and Comcast71 in the United States) have offered discounts and/or equipment such as Chrome books or tablets to low-income households, especially for e-learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. These companies serve primarily urban and suburban households. In Canada, the Connecting Families initiative provides $20 per month residential Internet service through a partnership with 14 service providers (none of which is Indigenous).72
A detailed analysis of comparative spectrum policies is beyond the scope of this article. (For a comparative analysis of allocation of satellite spectrum for 5G in Canada and the United States, see Hudson 2019.73) Spectrum in the 2.5 GHz band, some of which both countries have reallocated for 5G, can be used for local fixed broadband. Before conducting an auction of this spectrum for 5G use, the FCC opened a “priority window” to allow federally recognized rural Tribes and Alaska Native villages to obtain this spectrum to serve rural Indigenous lands. (This Tribal Priority policy was originally applied to FM radio stations in Tribal regions after advocacy by Native Public Media and other groups.) The window was open for 7 months during 2020. More than 350 Tribal and other Indigenous entities applied, some to serve multiple locations or communities.74 Also, Indigenous groups in Hawai’i successfully argued that Hawaiian Homelands should be included.
There are several examples of use of 2.5 GHz to serve Indigenous communities. For example, the Havasupai Tribe, located at the base of the Grand Canyon, uses 2.5 GHz spectrum for wireless broadband connectivity for Head Start, teachers, and K-12 students. A fixed wireless community network is installed in the Native Hawaiian community of Pu‘uhonua o Waimānalo on Oahu.75 The Alaska Tribal Spectrum consortium with the support of 85 Tribal members reserved 2.5 GHz spectrum covering a large area of rural Alaska.76
There is no comparable priority access to 2.5 GHz or other spectrum for Indigenous use in Canada. However, some Indigenous community fixed wireless networks do operate in Canada.77 Also some carriers have provided free access to their mobile spectrum to Indigenous providers to serve remote areas (such as Northwestern Ontario), but this is not based on any official policy.
A small nascent spectrum sovereignty movement led by Indigenous connectivity advocates, primarily in the United States, argues that Indigenous people should have the right to claim and use spectrum covering Tribal and other Indigenous lands.78
Other Policy and Regulatory Issues
Other policies and regulations can hinder the ability of providers serving Indigenous communities to install or upgrade broadband networks, operate these networks, and/or offer broadband services to Indigenouscommunities at affordable prices.
Wholesale Access to Transport Services
Indigenous and other community providers must access middle mile or backhaul facilities, typically operated by major incumbents (unless their connectivity is by satellite). In Canada, community and Indigenous service providers generally need access to fiber transport networks provided by ILECs in regions where the cost of installing their own terrestrial networks is prohibitive. However, lease charges are generally very high, as regulation of wholesale fiber transport services has generally been forborne by the CRTC since 2011 under the assumption that fiber transport is competitive, which is rarely the case in rural and remote regions. High transport charges make it difficult for small ISPs to meet the CRTC’s connectivity targets of 50 Mbps down and 10 Mbps upload speeds at affordable prices. An Indigenous provider serving northern Ontario communities stated: “It is not possible to meet 50/10 [Mbps] service obligations with the current transport costs; the transport costs consume such a large disproportional share of the total costs to provide the service.”79
In the United States, there is no state or federal regulation of middle mile networks. Thus, in Alaska, the dominant carrier was not required to provide discounted access to its middle mile microwave network, which was built with significant federal funding from the 2009 Recovery Act.80 The result has been that existing community LECs could not put together affordable broadband packages for their customers because the cost of leasing capacity from the incumbent was too high.81
Access to Support Structures
Access to existing support structures such as poles and towers can be critical for extending and upgrading rural broadband. In both countries, there is an imbalance of bargaining power between the access seekers and the owners of support structures, typically incumbent carriers or electric utilities, which exert monopoly control over access to existing infrastructure. These “gatekeepers” to support structures also lack incentives to expedite permits and make-ready work, particularly when carriers are accommodating potential competitors, or when utilities have concerns regarding safety and internal approval processes. Yet as one Indigenous provider in Canada noted: “The pole is part of the community [that] gave [the utility] access to put it there in the first place.”82
Others point out that rights-of-way and other agreements regarding Indigenous territories were negotiated decades ago, before increased legal recognition of Indigenous rights. One Indigenous connectivity advocate in the United States noted that carriers are upgrading from copper to fiber networks by relying on 50-year-old rights-of-way agreements originally negotiated for water/wastewater facilities, and later for copper networks:
“They’re using our [Tribal] lands; they’re using a rights-of-way [agreement] that should have expired. But now they’re doing it through an upgrade and maintenance [clause] . . . But copper to fiber isn’t an upgrade—that’s a total replacement.”83
Among the issues noted by competitive providers (both major cable companies and small ISPs) in Canada are delays in getting necessary permits, high and/or changing pricing for access, and delays and costs in completing make-ready work such as repairing, anchoring, or replacing poles. The need to complete make-ready work may result in delays as well as disputes over which entity should pay for repairs and upgrades. For example, in one case a permit was not granted sooner by the support structure owner because it claimed it was the only entity authorized to conduct repairs. Despite repeated requests, the owner took a year to complete the work, and the leasing organization paid for it to be done.84
A partial solution in the United States is the One Touch Make Ready (OTMR) principle adopted by the FCC in 2018 to help expedite extension of broadband “whereby the attacher, who has the incentive to move quickly, is able to perform simple make-ready work in the telecommunications space on a pole, subject to notice requirements and other safeguards needed to ensure the quality of the make-ready work.” The FCC elaborates:
“. . . Although [pole owners] have sometimes held new attachers responsible for the costs of correcting preexisting violations, this practice is inconsistent with our long-standing principle that a new attacher is responsible only for actual costs incurred to accommodate its attachment.”85
Indigenous organizations in both countries have emphasized that consultation with Indigenous communities and representatives is necessary to ensure that they are aware of the potential impacts and opportunities of publicly funded broadband infrastructure projects and other communications policies affecting them.86
Original CRTC Broadband Fund guidelines stated that applicants should show that they “attempted to consult” with communities. Such a requirement could be fulfilled by a letter never received or a telephone call never answered. Further, an example of acceptable consultation was a “market study” that could be done using available information (e.g., population, average income, public institutions, local businesses) without any interaction with the community.87
In contrast, in the United States, the FCC must “send any public notice seeking comment on any petition for designation as an eligible telecommunications carrier on Tribal lands, at the time it is released, to the affected tribal government and tribal regulatory authority, as applicable, by the most expeditious means available.”88 However there is no requirement to use registered mail or other means to certify that the notice was received.
Also, the FCC requires a Tribal Government Engagement Obligation from carriers receiving subsidies to provide services on Tribal lands. These carriers must demonstrate that they have coordinated with the Tribal government and provide a report documenting their compliance. The FCC has determined that, at a minimum, the annual Tribal engagement obligation for ETCs must include (1) needs assessment and deployment planning; (2) feasibility and sustainability planning; (3) marketing services in a culturally sensitive manner; (4) rights-of-way processes, land-use permitting, facilities siting, environmental and cultural preservation and review processes; and (5) compliance with Tribal business and licensing requirements.89
However, Indigenous connectivity advocates point out the limitations of this process. According to one interviewee, although regulations require carriers to meet with Tribes, consultation is typically limited to a letter sent to a generic emailbox of the Tribal government (which may or may not have access to telecommunications expertise). After 60 days, the carrier can check the box stating that it did consult with Tribes; as one interviewee put it: “Less than one percent [of carriers] are truly doing consultation . . . it’s a very small number of people who are actually doing consultation.” Another Indigenous connectivity advocate noted that many Tribal communities are learning that funding for connectivity in their communities has been secured by external providers who may not have engaged with (or even informed) them about their plans.90
Indigenous entities may also establish their own consultation and other requirements. For example, the Navajo Nation, which covers 71,000 square km (21,000 square miles) in the southwest United States, has its own Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (Navajo Nation Telecommunications Regulatory Commission [NNTRC]).91 The NNTRC has developed its own Application for Certificate of Convenience and Necessity, which includes guidelines for provision of telecommunications infrastructure and services on Navajo lands.92
Training and Hiring of Indigenous Residents
In both countries, Indigenous organizations have emphasized the importance of training for digital literacy so that their people can take advantage of newly installed broadband facilities for a variety of applications. In addition, Indigenous advocates have stated that ISPs and other providers that receive public sector funding to serve Indigenous communities should be required to hire and train local people to install, operate, and maintain these networks. Such a policy would create skilled jobs in these communities and contribute to a local economic base. In remote regions such as northern Canada and Alaska, carriers would also save money by using local labor rather than flying in employees or contractors.
However, there are no requirements for publicly funded broadband projects or licensed carriers serving Indigenous communities to hire and train local and/or Indigenous residents in either country. A recent example from the public utilities sector could serve as a model. Sonoma County (California) awarded $500,000 from a settlement of wildfire damages by electricity provider PG&E to the local junior college to develop a program to train local people for jobs in vegetation management.93 PG&E must also hire 80 to 100 local employees in the county, and a comparable number from other counties included in the settlement. While these terms are part of a legal settlement, similar requirements to train and employ local/Indigenous residents in rural broadband projects could also be included in government grants.
There are many similarities in regulations and policies in the United States and Canada concerning Indigenous and rural broadband. Both have several government funding programs to upgrade or extend rural broadband, including to Indigenous/Tribal communities. In both countries, Indigenous organizations, including Indigenous providers, have advocated for policies to extend affordable broadband, and to require consultation by carriers that receive government funding or licenses to serve Indigenous lands.
There are also some important differences:
Unlike the United States, Canada has no national policy of providing operational subsidies for rural providers or low-income users;
There are no units responsible for Indigenous matters within federal telecommunications agencies (CRTC and ISED) in Canada, whereas there is a unit (ONAP) within the FCC;
In Canada, the CRTC provides funding for nonprofit (including Indigenous) organizations for participation in regulatory proceedings; there is no comparable funding for nonprofit participation in FCC proceedings;
The FCC has primarily relied on reverse auctions for allocating broadband funds in the United States, while Canadian agencies primarily use comparative selection;
The FCC has approved some incentives for expediting broadband installation in the United States such as OTMR. There is no comparable policy in Canada.
Consultation with Indigenous governments/communities is required for providers seeking to serve or access Tribal/Indigenous lands in the United States, but may not be enforced. Such conditions are not generally required in Canada, although they may be included in some federal broadband funding guidelines.
Conclusions and recommendations from this analysis include:
Opportunities for small and Indigenous providers: These providers often do not have the resources (finances, time, and expertise) to submit complex proposals to funders. Also, even with some concessions, most are not able to participate in reverse auctions. It is therefore important to ensure that the eligibility and application requirements are appropriate for small and Indigenous providers.
Participation: Indigenous providers and community representatives should be encouraged to participate in hearings and other regulatory and policy proceedings. Training workshops and access to government staff for assistance can also facilitate participation.
Indigenous representation: Specific units with expertise in Indigenous issues should be established and adequately funded within telecommunications policy and regulatory agencies.
Need for meaningful consultation: Meaningful consultation requires significant efforts to engage with communities about projects intended to serve them. This consultation can also benefit providers by contributing relevant information about existing facilities and local conditions and sensitivities. Such consultation should be required for any providers seeking public sector funding to serve Indigenous communities and for all providers seeking licenses or other approvals to serve Tribal/Indigenous populations.
Affordability: Affordable pricing for users is critical for widespread broadband adoption. Transport and access charges must therefore be regulated because charges that small and Indigenous ISPs pay to lease transport capacity and connect to existing infrastructure will be passed on to the customers, necessarily raising their cost for access.
Operational subsidies: One-time infrastructure funding may not be sufficient to maintain rural networks and to offer broadband services at affordable prices. Operational subsidies may also be required.
Incentives: Incumbent facilities owners have little incentive to expedite access to their networks for potential competitors, including Indigenous networks. Policies that simplify procedures should be implemented to expedite broadband build-outs.
Training and Hiring Local Residents: Rural broadband projects are intended not only to provide connectivity to communities but to contribute to their development. Training and hiring local people can both create jobs and reduce construction and maintenance costs, rather than relying on distant employees and contractors. Training and hiring of Indigenous residents should be a condition for any provider seeking government funding to serve Indigenous communities and for any providers seeking licenses or permits to serve Indigenous populations.
Stronger Enforcement Mechanisms: Funding and license conditions such as community consultation, rollout deadlines, and quality of service metrics must include explicit means of enforcement. Self-reporting is not sufficient. Also, significant penalties for nonperformance should be specified and enforced.
Improved Rural Data Collection: Government data on rural coverage, transmission speeds, and service quality may be inaccurate or incomplete. Data should be regularly updated and checked for accuracy. Additional sources should be made available to contribute more accurate or granular data for broadband planning and funding. These might include community-based monitoring and evaluation activities, which can engage end-users to provide demand-side data to augment the supply-side data contributed by service providers.
Adoption of these policy recommendations can not only facilitate access to broadband in rural and Indigenous regions, but also contribute to Indigenous-led development initiatives. While regulatory and policy structures and legislation vary across jurisdictions, the experience with Indigenous broadband in the United States and Canada may be relevant for other countries with Indigenous populations, particularly in rural and remote regions.
Clark and Claffy.
Duarte; McMahon 2020; Trostle.
See for example: Middleton; Moran and Bui; Nesti; Rajabiun; Wilkinson.
Rajabiun and Middleton.
Moran and Bui.
Robinson et al.
Singh and Flyverbom.
Whitacre and Gallardo.
Singh and Flyverbom.
Rajabiun and Middleton.
The interviews and related analysis of policy documents were funded by the Internet Society.
Gurstein, “Effective Use”; Gurstein, “Toward a Conceptual Framework.”
Assembly of First Nations.
First Nations Technology Council.
CRTC, “Home Page.”
FCC, “Order 10-141.”
FCC, “Office of Native Affairs and Policy.”
FCC, “2022 Budget Estimates to Congress.”
United States Congress, “Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability Act.”
FCC, “Office of Native Affairs and Policy.”
Indigenous Services Canada.
CRTC, “Our Leadership: Claire Anderson.”
A list of many of these federal government programs and their funding allocations can be found in NTIA’s 2021 Access Broadband Report.
United States Congress, “Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.”
NTIA, “BEAD Program.”
United States Congress, “Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.”
Universal Service Administrative Co.
Telecom Programs, Rural Development, USDA.
Ontario, “Ontario Connects.”
Mackenzie Valley Fibre Link.
CRTC, “Broadband Fund.”
ISED, “Universal Broadband Fund.”
CRTC, “Broadband Fund: Projects Selected for Funding.”
ISED, “High Speed Internet for All of Canada.”
Interview conducted by McMahon.
U.S. Congress. Broadband DATA Act.
FCC. Broadband Data Collection.
Interview conducted by McMahon.
Canada. Open Government. National Broadband Data.
FCC, “Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.”
Interview conducted by McMahon.
Ontario, “Historic Investment Plan.”
FMCC, “Final Comments, CRTC 2017-112.”
FCC, “Connect America Fund et al.”
FCC, “Lifeline Program.”
Derived from data at USAC.org.
Consolidated Appropriations Act.
FCC, “Emergency Broadband Benefit.”
Interview conducted by McMahon.
CRTC, “Telecom Regulatory Policy 2016-496.”
CRTC, “Telecom Decision CRTC 2019-383.”
CRTC, “Telecom Regulatory Policy 2018-213.”
Interview conducted by McMahon.
Rogers, “Connected for Success.”
Comcast, “Internet Essentials.”
Government of Canada, “Connecting Families.”
Based on analysis of data reported at FCC, “2.5 GHz Rural Tribal Window Submitted Applications.”
Internet Society, “Connecting to Sovereignty.”
Alaska Tribal Spectrum.
FMCC, “Stories from the First Mile.”
FMCC, “CRTC 2019-406: Final Reply Comments,” para 9.
Congress, “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.”
Interview conducted by McMahon.
Interview conducted by McMahon.
FMCC, “CRTC 2019-406: Intervention,” para 101.
FCC, “Removing Barriers to Infrastructure Investment,” para 121.
FMCC, “CRTC 2019-406: Reply Comments,” para 66.
FMCC, “CRTC 2019-406: Intervention,” para E11.
Cited in FMCC, “CRTC 2017-112: FMCC Reply Comments,” para 57.
Form available at https://www.usac.org/wp-content/uploads/high-cost/documents/Forms/FCC-Form-481-Template.pdf (Accessed November 21, 2021).
Interview conducted by McMahon.
Navajo Nation Telecommunications Regulatory Commission, “Website.”
Navajo Nation Telecommunications Regulatory Commission, “Second Report and Order.”