A cellular tower. Photo: Rick

Democrats demand consultation on FCC policy opposed by tribes

Update: Due to weather, the FCC meeting starts at 11:30am Eastern on Thursday. Webcast at fcc.gov/general/live.

More Democrats and at least one member of the Federal Communications Commission are calling for additional tribal consultation as a critical vote approaches.

In a letter on Wednesday, Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and three fellow Democrats said tribes have raised procedural and substantive concerns about the wireless infrastructure proposal. They are worried that adoption of the proposal -- expected at a public meeting on Thursday -- would limit tribal input.

"Closing the digital divide in Indian Country is not mutually exclusive with the goal of robust tribal consultation," Udall wrote in the letter, which was joined by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minnesota), a new member of Congress, and Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-New Mexico).

"We believe the FCC can expand broadband into underserved communities in Indian Country without sacrificing the federal government's trust obligations to tribes," the Democrats said. Key members of the House weighed in with a similar letter on Tuesday.

Alarms about the Wireless Infrastructure Streamlining Order are also being raised by Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who was nominated by former president Barack Obama, a Democrat. She too believes said the vote should not take place without further tribal consultation.

In a statement on Wednesday, Clyburn said "it is clear to me that the best course for all parties at this juncture is to delay tomorrow’s vote on this order until the potential adverse impact of these proposed rules on tribal nations, historic sites, and the natural environment are fully addressed.”

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Though inclement weather closed the federal government on Wednesday, the FCC at this point is going forward with Thursday's meeting. If there are weather issues, the meeting is expected to start two hours later than scheduled.

Ahead of the vote, Commissioner Brendan Carr, a Republican appointee who has taken the lead on the proposal, has continued to tout the initiative on social media. So has Ajit Pai, the Republican chairman of the FCC, who argues that "small" wireless developments need to streamlined.

"The problem is that the FCC's rules still contemplate infrastructure as if everything were a massive cell tower," Pai said in a video shared on Wednesday afternoon. "But small cells don't present the same issues as big towers and forcing them to jump through the same regulatory hoops means that American companies and consumers won't be able to seize the wireless future."

But tribes and their advocates say even "small" developments must be closely examined in order to assess any impacts on ancestral lands, burial grounds, sacred sites and other important areas. They believe the wireless proposal restricts their ability to take part in the process and is being advanced without adequate consultation.

"The FCC's proposed decision to move forward with the second report and order will alter the consultation process and practices significantly without sufficient consultation with the nation, and potentially exposes cultural and historic sites to adverse effects hereby eliminating the nation's and tribes' role in historic preservation," Theodore Isham, the historic preservation officer for the Seminole Nation, said in a comment on Tuesday.

The meeting on Thursday will be webcast at fcc.gov/general/live, starting at 9:30am Eastern, or 11:30am if a weather delay is called.

Commissioner Clyburn's full statement follows:
Expediting the deployment of next generation wireless services to all Americans must remain a top priority for the FCC. While I strongly support this goal, in recent weeks I have made clear that the approach proposed by the current Order to streamline the deployment of wireless infrastructure raises many concerns. It was my hope that through discussions and negotiations that these concerns could be addressed. However, after a full review of the record (and multiple conversations with numerous stakeholders) about the concerns raised by Tribal Nations, environmental protection advocates, and local government representatives, it is clear to me that the best course for all parties at this juncture is to delay tomorrow’s vote on this Order until the potential adverse impact of these proposed rules on Tribal Nations, historic sites, and the natural environment are fully addressed.

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