The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.
There is a natural resource in Tucson potentially worth millions of dollars. You’re most likely utilizing it right now. And like other natural resources in the West, local tribes have a claim to it. It’s not water, sunlight or minerals. It’s the invisible radio waves we call electromagnetic spectrum that are essential to wireless telecommunications.
Tribes have watched the U.S. government officials “manage” (steal) natural resources since before America’s conception. Tribal nations have fought the U.S. government and others for recognition of their rights over every natural resource: first land and water, then oil, gas, coal and uranium.
Now, U.S. officials have come for the electromagnetic spectrum (what I’ll refer to as “spectrum”) that is essential to connectivity and quality of life in the modern era. Spectrum is the resource that carries digital information from point to point, and your laptop or cellphone can’t function without it.
We can only utilize specific frequencies of spectrum at one time for the purpose of telecommunications, meaning it’s a finite in a given moment.
Historically it has been officials at the Department of Interior at the forefront of siphoning tribal resources. But this time the Federal Communications Commission is the agency appropriating tribal spectrum.
The FCC regulates spectrum by dividing America into geographic “blocks” and auctioning off spectrum licenses, which convey the right to use specific frequencies in an area.
The FCC auctioned 1,611 spectrum blocks to telecommunications companies in 2015, bringing in $41.7 billion.
The federal agency also distributes spectrum licenses to educational institutions for free, as long as the institution can prove that the spectrum is being used for educational purposes.
Locally, the University of Arizona holds significant portions of spectrum licenses with boundaries jutting into lands governed by the Tohono O’odham Nation and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe.
In April, a federal rule change will allow educational institutions to sell the spectrum licenses they hold; these are licenses that could potentially put millions of dollars into the pockets of educational institutions; these are licenses that may include the spectrum on lands governed by native nations.
With rules like these, the FCC has created a digital divide: approximately 6 out of 10 homes in rural, tribal areas lack a broadband internet connection.
This deprives tribal citizens of a basic utility and its myriad benefits.
Giving credit where credit is due, the FCC is attempting to accommodate connectivity for native nations by offering a tribal priority opportunity, where the FCC will provide some rural tribes a short period to apply for one small slice of spectrum (the 2.5 GHz band) on their lands.
But native nations like the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, whom the FCC have arbitrarily designated “urban,” are not eligible to apply.
These rules amount to slap in the face of tribal sovereignty, as the FCC should recognize the authority of these sovereign native nations to govern the use of the valuable and essential spectrum within their jurisdiction.
Spectrum is an important natural resource: in the hands of indigenous peoples it can empower communities to enrich every aspect of their lives, from health and education to economic development to cultural/language revitalization and network sovereignty.
The FCC should recognize the authority of native nations to govern every natural resource within their lands, which includes spectrum.
If the FCC refuses to recognize the spectrum sovereignty of local tribes around Tucson, the responsibility falls on the University of Arizona to make things right.
Darrah Blackwater is an enrolled citizen of the Navajo Nation, and a third-year law student at the University of Arizona specializing in federal Indian law and telecommunications. She has completed internships in the office of the assistant secretary of Indian Affairs and under the inspector general of the Department of the Interior.
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