Earlier today, I had the pleasure of visiting the Pueblo of Acoma in central New Mexico along with Senator Tom Udall, my second visit to Indian Country in 2014.  I saw buildings carved out of the earth by hand in the 17th Century, and also met with community leaders focused on unlocking the digital opportunities of the 21st Century.

I had enlightening discussions with Tribal leaders on the economic development opportunities that come with enhanced communications access.  The conversations brought home the heightened importance for Tribal communities of so many issues before the FCC.

Acoma illustrates the power of communications technology to overcome geographic isolation and put a world of information and economic opportunity at the fingertips of citizens in even the most remote communities.

It also demonstrates how we still have a digital divide in this country, with rural communities, and especially Native Americans, disproportionately on the wrong side, getting bypassed by the Internet revolution.

Acoma is located in Cibola County, where nearly half of residents (45%) don’t even have access to 3 Mbps broadband, which is less than what’s recommended to stream HD video without problems. Barely 10 % have access to 10 Mbps broadband. We must do better.

In communities like Acoma with low broadband access rates, the local library is often a digital lifeline for area residents. That’s certainly true of Acoma.

I visited the Acoma Learning Center – the town library, which has a computer lab with 10 desktops. Area adults rely on the Learning Center’s computer lab to look up information on everything from jobs to health care, and children use these computers for help with their homework after school.

The FCC’s E-Rate program has supported basic Internet access for the Acoma Learning Center. But it could be doing more. That’s why E-Rate modernization is so important.

Next week, the Commission will consider a proposal to update and improve the program, making E-Rate dollars go farther, and streamlining the program to make it faster, simpler, and more efficient.

We owe it to all schools and libraries that participate in the E-Rate program to make it equitable for all. Too often the current rules mean that some schools are able to garner a disproportionate amount of funding at the expense of others.

The proposal would also close the gap for Wi-Fi support that currently exists in the program – a change that would enable an additional 6 million children, disproportionately in rural areas, to access Wi-Fi and the 21st Century educational tools it enables during the 2015 funding year. 

One of the key benefits of the E-rate order under consideration is that it will significantly expand access to Wi-Fi funding available for rural areas like Cibola County.  Historically urban areas have received nearly 60% of internal connections support despite serving under 30% of all students, while rural applicants are crowded out.  With improved rules, over the next 5 years Wi-Fi funding for rural schools would be increased by 75 %. Urban schools will also do better, seeing an increase in support of 60%.

In New Mexico alone, over the next five years, more than 100 additional libraries, including Acoma, could receive funding for Wi-Fi, and more than 630 additional schools could receive funding for Wi-Fi granting access to more than 225,000 additional students.

Our E-Rate modernization proposal also commits to enhance the Commission’s Tribal consultation, training, and outreach to better inform and empower Tribal schools to effectively access E-rate funding. Through this effort we seek to gain a better understanding of the current state of connectivity among Tribal schools and libraries to enable the Commission to take steps that will reduce the digital divide and promote high-speed broadband connectivity to Tribal lands. 

Internet connectivity can be a great equalizer for places like Acoma. We need to expand broadband access to the citizens of Indian Country across the board, and a solid foundation is improved connectivity in schools and libraries through E-Rate.

I thank Senator Udall for his continued leadership on Tribal issues and for his persistent reminders that we must always do more to improve Tribal access to modern communications.  And I thank the people of Acoma for their hospitality, and will carry the lessons of today’s visit with me as we move forward with E-Rate modernization and all our efforts to maximize the benefits of broadband for Indian Country and rural America.