ALA, ATALM hail FCC’s unanimous decision to expand E-rate eligibility for tribal libraries

For Immediate Release
Thu, 01/27/2022


Shawnda Hines

Assistant Director, Communications

Public Policy and Advocacy

Advocates call for outreach, resources to ensure program use

WASHINGTON–The American Library Association (ALA) hailed the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) unanimous vote to update the definition of “library” to clarify that tribal libraries are fully eligible for the universal service School and Libraries Program. Better known as the E-rate, the federal program provides eligible libraries and schools with up to a 90 percent discount on their telecommunication and internet access costs.

“ALA applauds the Commission’s decision to expand the definition of “library” so that more tribal libraries are eligible for E-rate,” said ALA President Patty Wong. “By leveraging library and school access to E-rate funding, Tribal communities can dramatically increase their internet access speeds and decrease costs.

“Today’s vote is the first step to address a longstanding inequity within a federal program that has brought fast, affordable connectivity to libraries and schools in so many rural and underserved communities who, in some cases, would otherwise struggle to access the internet at all.”

The Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums (ATALM) President Susan Feller said, “Tribal library connectivity is a lifeline for people on tribal lands, where residential broadband is sometimes nonexistent. Removing obstacles to E-rate eligibility is an obvious starting point for tribal residents’ access to digital collections, e-government services, legal information, distance learning, telemedicine and many other essential community services.”

Tribal communities have by far the worst broadband access for any group of Americans:

  • 628,000 tribal households lack access to standard broadband, a rate more than four times that of the general population. (FCC, 2020)
  • Nearly one in five reservation residents has no internet at home. (American Indian Policy Institute, 2019)

For households that do have access, it is often too slow and too expensive.

According to the FCC, approximately 15 percent of tribal libraries now participate in the E-rate program. While the previous definition of “library” for E-rate eligibility was a major obstacle for tribal libraries to apply for funds, advocates emphasized that additional factors, including tribal libraries’ unfamiliarity with the E-rate program, will still be a factor that must be addressed. Preliminary results of a 2021 digital inclusion survey of tribal libraries by ATALM (to be released in 2022) indicate that 38% of respondents had not heard of the E-rate program.

“For national E-rate policy equity to translate into digital equity for tribal communities, the FCC will need to dedicate significant time and resources to increase participation among tribal libraries,” said Wong.

To encourage full participation in E-rate, ALA and ATALM made several recommendations to the FCC in their November 12 comments, including:

  • implement a more robust outreach and application support strategy  
  • consult with ATALM and other relevant tribal organizations to develop a strategy for providing technical assistance to tribal libraries in assessing their network capacity and broadband needs  
  • add a member to the Universal Services Administrative Company (USAC) board with purview over Tribal libraries
  • collaborate with the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the federal agency with the most direct experience working with tribal libraries, in consultation with ALA, ATALM and the American Indian Library Association