GAO says performance benchmarks needed for Tribal broadband programs

A government watchdog warned the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) isn’t doing enough to measure the success of its Tribal broadband programs as the agency continues to dole out funding for broadband upgrades across the 56 million acres of Indian Reservation lands.

From the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program to the awards and loans made by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) ReConnect program, the U.S. is making a major push to extend broadband and network upgrades in underserved and rural areas. Tribal broadband is a key part of those efforts.

Last month, the NTIA announced it had awarded grants to 12 tribes totaling over $5.8 million from the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program (TBCP). That followed the $25.7 million it awarded to tribes in Minnesota and New Mexico in March and $500,000 granted to the Passamaquoddy tribe in January.

Yet while the NTIA continues to dole out funding through the TBCP and the Broadband Infrastructure Program (BIP), the agency isn’t doing enough to ensure the successful performance of these programs, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released earlier this year.The report described NTIA’s program management of TBCP and BIP as “generally consistent with recommended practices for awarding grants.” But the GAO took issue with the NTIA’s claims of providing “reliable” and “affordable” connectivity without defining those terms — thereby making them not effectively quantifiable.

These findings prompted a list of 15 recommendations for better performance monitoring and program implementation success. The recommendations would effectively create a dedicated NTIA administrator to establish program goals and measurements within the TBCP and BIP, define and measure “reliable” and “affordable” connectivity, and monitor fraud risk within the program. The status of these recommendations currently remains open, and the GAO intends to provide updates to the responses taken by the NTIA as it becomes available. 

Private sector's role

Just as the GOA points out a need for measurements of growth from the public sector, vendors, operators and providers have an equal responsibility in guiding a thorough and respectful relationship with Tribal partners.

Stephen Rose, a current Telco GM at IBM, worked in deploying telecom networks in tribal communities in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. He found a top priority was consultation, particularly with tribal elders, around assessing the best and least invasive deployment methods to preserve the culture of the tribe and its relationship to the land. “Any implementation of technology requires a consultation,” Rose told Fierce. Whether it be fiber, FWA or mobile broadband, it is essential that CSPs engage with tribal communities to assess the benefits and trade-offs of specific implementations, especially when surrounding sacred land statuses.

A relationship-focused approach was also touted by Angel Benally, Tribal Affairs Specialist at AT&T, and Carrie Johnson, Director of External Affairs and Policy for FirstNet at AT&T, who spoke with Fierce. While FirstNet primarily serves first responders and public safety officials, the two explained that because it receives high deployment priority, it can leverage the strength of its private-public partnership to bypass slow buildout timelines for tribal and rural communities. 

Johnson added that broader tribal communities still benefit from mobile broadband in all deployments from FirstNet — which has expanded its footprint on reservation lands by 40% in the last two years. Benally is also a member of the Navajo Nation living on tribal land in Utah, and she echoed the importance of the conversation needed between CSPs and tribal leaders. “Instead of a carrier swooping in and saying, ‘We're going to tell you where your needs are,’ it's being very thoughtful and working with tribal leadership, being a good partner and a good advocate” that will lead to effective progress, she explained. 

5/23/2023 3:28 pm ET: This story has been revised to update Johnson and Benally's titles.