Co-authored by Jonathan Davidson and Tae Yoo

On March 12, Cisco took a very bold step and declared a global “work from home” policy for most of our 140,000 employees, contractors, and partners. The almost-overnight move presented a number of challenges—for example, securing 130,000 devices across 498 offices in 94 countries. Overall, the transition went smoothly. The majority of Cisco’s workforce had the electronic devices, collaboration and security software, and high-speed internet connectivity necessary to remain productive.

Amidst the global pandemic, however, the move to a virtual world wasn’t as easy for most others. Geographic obstacles, lack of infrastructure and devices, inadequate power supplies, high cost, and poor reliability are just a few of the challenges that surfaced as the world was forced to do more online.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that internet connectivity is more critical to the success of our society than ever before. It has become essential to accessing education, establishing and maintaining a livelihood, receiving hard-to-reach healthcare, and so much more. Yet as more things get connected, as more entities go virtual, and as more services move online, the digital divide is growing—a divide between those who have access to the internet, and those who do not… or don’t have enough.

Plight of Native Americans

In fact, one of the most prominent groups on the wrong side of this digital divide is the 574 federally recognized, sovereign, Native American Tribes. This community represents about 3 million people with many living on rural Tribal lands.

The challenges their communities are facing are sobering. Poverty rates are twice the national average, and the occurrence of chronic and debilitating health issues are dramatically higher than the nation as a whole.

Educational achievement is similarly concerning. Approximately 1.5 million people on reservations do not have basic wireless services, and more than a third of those living on Tribal lands don’t have access to high-speed broadband at all.

Unprecedented Opportunity

Today, most tribal lands have data-rich fiber running to their borders but lack any reasonable last-mile connectivity. In February, the FCC announced the “2.5 GHz Rural Tribal Window.” This program allows each sovereign Tribe to apply for exclusive usage rights, at no cost, for prime 2.5GHz wireless spectrum.

Working with non-profit organizations such as MuralNet, Tribes will be able to sign up for that spectrum, as well as build and deploy fixed-wireless access networks that provide their residents with high-speed, high-quality broadband. This new connectivity will help facilitate state-of-the-art educational services, telemedicine capabilities, remote social services, career development opportunities, remote worker infrastructure, and more.

The free FCC program provides rural Tribes tremendous opportunities. To date, a little over half of the 574 eligible sovereign Tribes and Tribal entities have submitted an application for free spectrum. We are hopeful that with everyone’s help, all applications from eligible Tribes will be submitted by the September 2, 2020 deadline.

How Cisco is Helping

Cisco is dedicated to ensuring that life changing services become the reality, to address many of the challenges facing the Tribal communities. In partnership with some of our biggest customers, we are investing our time, energy, development expertise, and money to make sure state-of-the-art broadband networks are deployed by as many recognized Native American Tribes as possible, across all 50 states.  We are:

  • Working to achieve a 100% spectrum application rate among eligible Tribes by the September 2, 2020 deadline
  • Providing financial support and/or pro-bono legal services to non-profit organizations dedicated to improving the prospects of our Native American populations (MuralNet, MICA, Tribal25 and others)
  • Donating our time and expertise to ensure high quality reference designs for the required equipment
  • Collaborating with our supply chain ODM/CM partners to ensure availability of cost effective and reliable hardware systems that can be purchased by Native American Tribes
  • Providing volunteer opportunities and support to our technical teams to help install, configure, and tune licensed spectrum-based broadband networks on Tribal lands
  • Leveraging and donating our educational capabilities to ensure that 2.5GHz fixed wireless access networks can be successfully deployed and operated by Tribal IT staff over the long term

How You Can Help

The deadline is looming—the application window will close at 6:00 p.m. (Eastern) on September 2, 2020.

Between now and then, we need your help to ensure that all Tribes are aware of the program, understand the value of the spectrum, and are working toward submitting an application to the FCC—even if at a later date they decide not to operationalize the spectrum.

If you have a connection with a Tribe that is still working on their application, please check in with them to ensure it is submitted by September 2, 2020. Time is of the essence!

Once the applications are approved, there is ample opportunity for others to join the effort to build out the networks and with it, their capacity to overcome the digital divide.


For more information

A complete list of eligible Tribes and their application status

More information about the FCC’s “2.5 GHz Rural Tribal Window

More information about the non-profit organizations working with Native American populations to file applications: MuralNet, MICA, Tribal25



Jonathan Davidson

EVP and General Manager

Cisco Networking