"Overcoming Obstacles to Telephone Service
Indians on Reservations"

Federal Communications Commission
Friday, January 29, 1999
Public Hearing


The Albuquerque field hearing is part of a larger FCC effort to ensure that Indians on reservations gain the same access to telephone services enjoyed by other Americans. To this end, the Commission continues to engage in a national results-oriented dialogue with Indian tribes (panel one), the telecommunications industry (panel two) as well as state governments and consumer groups (panel three).

The Commission, tribal governments, states, industry and consumers all have a roles to play in defining and solving the challenge of underservice to Indians on reservations. Poverty, high costs of service, and in some New Mexico pueblos, a reluctance to abandon traditional ways of living all contribute to the relatively low telephone penetration levels among Indians on reservations. According to the 1990 census data, less than half of Indian households on reservations have phones. On the San Carlos reservation in Arizona, or on Navajo reservation and trust lands the number is lower, 16% of households have telephones.

The statistics identify a dramatic gap in our country. Nationally, about 94% of Americans have phones. Even rural families earning $5000 a year do better than many reservations. Almost 75% of rural households have phones.

The repercussions of the gap are equally appalling. The low penetration places Indians on reservations at a tremendous disadvantage in society. Some cannot obtain access to medial care in an emergency. Others cannot reach prospective employers quickly and easily. Many cannot take advantage of the commercial, educational and medical care opportunities the Internet offers.

Telecommunications services can improve the quality of life on reservations in ways Indian tribes find consistent with their rich heritage and beneficial to all Americans.

Our efforts to explore solutions should adhere to certain guidelines. Our approach to this challenge must recognize that Indian tribes or pueblos are domestic sovereign nations. Our interaction has to be conducted on a government-to government basis. Each tribe is distinct and individual. With these guidelines in mind, the Commission plans to adopt principles recognizing its responsibilities to Indian nations.

One of the Commission's responsibilities is to promote awareness and incentives among industry. The telecommunications industry has met many challenges in developing the nation's telecommunications infrastructure. Telecommunication entrepreneurs have the creativity and ingenuity to solve this problem, but many may not be aware of the need to improve service on reservations and may lack the economic incentive to meet that need. The Commission, tribal government and state government may eliminate rules and policies to spur the industry to action. Removing regulatory barriers may also encourage the deployment of relatively low-cost technologies for service on reservations.

There are many promising technologies that may help bring service to reservations. These include Private Land Mobile Radio Services as a low-cost and low-quality alternative for areas that otherwise lack service. Another option is 900 MHz cellular service. It may provide the least expensive way to get telephone service to remote reservation areas. Ultimately, a combination of technologies (e.g. wireline in population centers, wireless in areas near towers and satellite in extremely remote areas) may offer the least costly alternative for most reservations.