ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Two western senators are proposing to expand access to a $4 billion federal program that has allowed public schools and libraries throughout the U.S. to obtain high-speed internet at affordable rates as one way to close the digital divide that persists across American Indian communities and other rural areas.
Librarians, policymakers and other experts gathered Thursday in Washington, D.C., for a panel discussion on the legislation and the needs of tribal communities.
Federal Communications Commissioner Mignon Clyburn told the group that investing in broadband infrastructure is critical because those investments increasingly determine which cities, towns and tribal nations thrive.
"Just like water, roads, railways and electricity, broadband is now fundamental when it comes to our community development," Clyburn said.
The commissioner also ticked off a number of statistics, saying they can't be shared enough given the lack of disparity between the nation's urban and rural populations.
In 2016, more than 92 percent of the overall population had broadband service at levels deemed by the FCC as enough for advanced telecommunication. Clyburn said the numbers were less positive for rural and tribal areas, where about one-third of people lack access.
She also said 14 million Americans living in rural areas and more than 1 million living in tribal communities lack access to mobile broadband.
"We're talking about 5G," she said. "There are some people who are trying to figure out what G is. I'm serious."
Clyburn and others said society has become increasingly digital dependent and pointed to the social and economic development that comes from being able to access resources, services and even health care online.
While touting the success of the federal government's E-rate program, which provides discounts to assist most schools and libraries obtain high-speed internet access at affordable rates, they said more needs to be done for tribes to tap the funding.
Most of the nation's public libraries have received E-rate funding, but officials estimate only 15 percent of tribal libraries have received it.
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, and Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada are sponsoring legislation that would improve and increase access to the universal service support program and establish a $100 million pilot program for broadband access in Indian Country for tribes without libraries.
The senators say over 80 percent of rural tribal communities in New Mexico and 70 percent of those in Nevada lack access to broadband.
Heinrich said the legislation has the potential to benefit remote Alaskan villages, pueblos throughout New Mexico, chapter houses across the vast Navajo Nation and many other tribal communities.
The bill has the support of Clyburn and the American Library Association.
In New Mexico, some pueblos formed a consortium and won federal funding to build their own network, which is now nearly complete. The project marked the largest federal investment in broadband deployment in Indian Country.
Cynthia Aguilar, a librarian with Santo Domingo Pueblo in northern New Mexico, described bringing more broadband capacity to her tribe as an innovation as large as establishing the railroad more than a century ago in what was then the territory of New Mexico.
She described the one internet connection that currently feeds the community center where the library is located. With more than 100 tribal employees using the internet, business is sometimes left undone at the end of the day due to a lack of connectivity.
"Once the fiber optics are lit, it will be black and white," she said of the difference. "It will be so spectacular. I'm even speechless to say the words right now."
Clyburn likened libraries like the one run by Aguilar as life lines for their communities because they are often the only places where rural residents can access the internet. Without changes, she said the U.S. runs the risk of having an entire generation of rural residents left offline.