While the Biden administration is pushing hard to increase broadband service access across the country, the White House needs to come up with a national strategy to do so on tribal lands where broadband access has traditionally lagged, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a new report.

High-speed internet has become a critical element of modern life, but access is not readily available to all communities across the country – especially tribal lands. In 2020, 18 percent of people on tribal lands couldn’t access broadband service, compared to the four percent of people in non-tribal areas.

In 2021, the Biden-Harris administration made a high priority of increasing broadband access to all communities across the country.

The Federal government has launched numerous programs to increase broadband access across the country, but tribes continue to struggle with broadband access. According to GAO, “tribes have struggled to identify which Federal programs meet their needs and have had difficulty navigating complex application processes.”

The missing piece: a national strategy that outlines precise roles, goals, and performance measures. According to Federal agencies engaged in this matter, “a national strategy led by the White House could improve coordination, and the persistent gap in access on tribal lands warrants specific focus,” GAO said.

Additionally, GAO found that the American Broadband Initiative (ABI) – the primary coordinating body in broadband – lacks a framework for addressing tribal barriers that could support implementing a national strategy. ABI members also told GAO that while they have formal frameworks related to Federal broadband funding, they do not hold regular discussions regarding tribal broadband issues.

“Without a national strategy and framework within the [ABI] to focus tribal efforts, broadband access for people living on tribal lands will continue to lag behind the rest of the country, perpetuating the digital divide,” the report states.

GAO made two recommendations:

  1. The Executive Office of the President should specifically address tribal needs within a national broadband strategy; and
  2. the Department of Commerce (DOC) should create a framework within the ABI for addressing tribal issues.

While the White House did not agree or disagree with GAO’s recommendation, it did highlight the importance of tribal engagement in developing a strategy. DOC did agree with GAO’s recommendation.

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Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez is a MeriTalk State and Local Staff Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.