Vice President Kamala Harris announced Thursday that the White House is making available $1 billion in funding for Tribal Nations to fortify their broadband infrastructure.
The funds were included in the $900 billion COVID-19 relief package enacted in late December of last year, and indigenous communities can now apply for specific grants to cover various broadband-related projects.
Harris was joined by Shannon Holsey, president of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians in Wisconsin and treasurer for the National Congress of American Indians, for Thursday’s announcement. Commerce secretary Gina Raimondo and Interior secretary Deb Haaland, herself a member of the Pueblo of Laguna in New Mexico, also joined the event.
Holsey spoke first, touching on the “widespread patches of absolutely no connectivity” to broadband across many indigenous communities, saying the lack of access “creates even more vulnerability.”
“Expanding broadband access would transform native communities, promote economic development, and empower Tribal Nation governments to provide critical services, including health care, education, public safety and emergency services,” Holsey said.
Harris agreed, saying access to broadband is critical as it is “fundamentally how we create good jobs and economic opportunity.”
The grants can be used for projects ranging from laying down fiber optic cables, digital literacy programs, distance learning, broadband adoption activities and more.
Still, Harris stressed that both the funds released Thursday — and those included in President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which was signed into law in March — are simply a “down payment on the work we must do,” pushing for Congress to pass the $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan as a continued investment in the future.
The American Rescue Plan allocated $31.2 billion for Tribal Nations to address the impacts of COVID-19 not necessarily related to broadband access, although Harris said the pandemic only heightened the “digital divide” for many native communities.
“We must keep going until we connect every American household,” Harris said. “With the American Jobs Plan, President Joe Biden and I are determined to get to 100% coverage.”
Harris was tapped by President Joe Biden to lead the administration’s push to increase access to high-speed internet, and has previously led discussions with community leaders to discuss the issue.
The American Jobs Plan has a significant focus on rebuilding digital infrastructure nationwide, with a planned $100 billion investment to “bring affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to every American,” per the White House.
The package would also ensure that “funds are set aside for infrastructure on tribal lands and that tribal nations are consulted in program administration.”