Guest opinion: Overregulation is compromising internet access for Native communities

The digital divide is alive and well in our state, where both rural communities and tribal nation citizens of Nevada continue to be denied quality, affordable broadband internet. Our elected representatives—from Senators Rosen and Cortez Masto to President Biden—are doing their part. Congress passed over $60 billion in funding to improve broadband access across the country, over $400 million of which is set to come here to Nevada. Unfortunately, Washington regulators are imposing strict new rules that could put that expansion at risk, leaving Native communities waiting once again. 

Access to broadband connectivity is not just about convenience but equity and justice. As part of the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Democrats in Congress and the White House have made broadband expansion a top priority. For Indigenous communities, reliable internet access is essential for preserving our cultures, accessing education, healthcare, and economic opportunities, and participating in the digital age. Yet, despite the pressing need for broadband access and expansion in our communities, we continue to be left behind, solidifying a two-tiered society: the internet haves and have-nots.  

To expand internet access, it is critical to strike a careful balance between encouraging innovation and ensuring equitable access across all communities. Over the last few years, we’ve seen bureaucrats at the Department of Commerce, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and the Federal Communications Commission take an aggressive approach to broadband regulation. Well-intentioned though they may be, these heavy-handed restrictions risk exacerbating existing imbalances rather than encouraging diversity and progress in closing the digital divide. 

Recent guidelines from the FCC, NTIA, and the Department of Commerce calling for more rules and price caps threaten to exacerbate already significant disparities in internet accessibility. These proposed regulations may stifle the expansion of broadband infrastructure in rural areas by imposing unnecessary constraints on internet providers and discouraging investment, exacerbating our communities’ digital isolation and impeding our ability to thrive in today’s landscape. 

One example of these stringent new regulations can be seen at the FCC. While our elected representatives fight to expand access to the open internet, the FCC is working to consolidate their power over the internet via “Title II reclassification.” Sometimes called “net neutrality,” Title II reclassification would give the federal government vast power to regulate the internet— effectively letting the FCC set the rules for how the internet is used, by whom, for what, and at what price. 

This federal government overreach could have a lasting impact that goes beyond potential invasions of privacy. Concentrating power over broadband services in the hands of Washington regulators could lead to dramatic reductions in broadband quality, innovation, and access. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will be disincentivized from investing in broadband, freezing innovation across the technology sector and jeopardizing American digital and technology leadership. These challenges will trickle down to the local level, giving our communities fewer choices and less access to innovative new technologies.  

Equally troublingly, government takeover of the internet risks preventing broadband expansion to areas that still lack access—solidifying the current two-tiered society of internet haves and have-nots. With government controlling the prices ISPs can set for their services and the technologies that they can choose to deploy, ISPs may struggle with expensive buildouts in less populated, remote or economically disadvantaged areas. Native communities will continue to wait for access. And the longer it takes us to get access to quality broadband, the more we will feel the impact of related disparities in healthcare, education, and economic opportunity. 

As the Executive Director of the Native Voter Alliance, I urge our regulators to prioritize a regulatory approach that takes into account the unique needs of our Native communities. We cannot afford to let overregulation stand in the way of ensuring equitable access to broadband for all Americans, including Indigenous communities. It’s time for decision makers to support policies that promote collaboration, innovation, and community-led solutions to bridge the digital divide. 

Taylor Patterson is a Bishop Paiute Tribe Member and Executive Director of the Native Voter Alliance. She lives in Las Vegas.