Tribal communities are about to get a $2B broadband funding boost

Much media and industry attention has been focused on the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program since Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) late last year and for good reason. The $42.5 billion BEAD program alone accounts for the majority of the $65 billion in broadband funding the IIJA allocated to fuel broadband projects across the country. But tribal communities are set to get their own dedicated influx of broadband funding, with money expected to flow in the coming months.

Specifically, the IIJA calls for $2 billion in funding to be distributed through the existing Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program. Established in December 2020 via the passage of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, the program is run by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and launched with an initial allocation of $980 million. That means the new IIJA money will nearly triple the total amount of funding available.

To date, the NTIA has awarded just $83 million in grants from the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program following the close of an initial application window on September 1, 2021. The most recent installment of $77 million was distributed for 34 projects at the start of May. And it seems more awards are imminent.

Speaking at a recent press conference about the NTIA’s agenda for the next few months, NTIA chief Alan Davidson stated "You’ll be seeing more from us on Tribal grants. We’ve got a big Tribal grant program, and we’ve waited until after this [BEAD funding notice] is launched but we’ve got more Tribal grants coming out.”

Despite the influx of IIJA funding, though, the need on Tribal lands still outpaces availability. The NTIA noted in December it received a total of 301 applications for the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program seeking a total of $5.84 billion. That means the program remains $2.86 billion short of the requested funding.

There are currently 574 federally recognized Tribal entities in the U.S. According to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) data, 21% of citizens on Tribal lands lacked access to basic wireline broadband service offering speeds of at least 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream as of the end of 2019, compared to just over 4% of the overall U.S. population and 1% of the urban U.S. population.