Commissioner Gloria Tristani
Federal Communications Commission
National Tribal Nations Link-Up Telecommunications Workshop
January 10, 2000
Albuquerque, New Mexico
as prepared for delivery
Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be with you again. In July 1998, I participated in the first workshop that led to the creation of Tribal Nations Link-Up. I’m very pleased to find that the group has flourished. Today, you are actively engaged in education and facilitating a dialogue about Native American telecommunications issues. You are performing a critical role and I thank you.
I recently heard a tribal leader explain that telephone service among his people is a luxury. In a community where there may be no indoor plumbing and people may heat their homes with wood, perhaps this is not surprising. But it is alarming. Without access to telephones, people are at a tremendous disadvantage. There is no 911 service. Someone must run from home to home in cases of medical emergency or fire. Many are forced to make do, cut off from access to the commercial, educational, and medical care opportunities that most of us never think twice about. And without a phone, it’s difficult to find a job, let alone develop your own business. All this, and I haven’t even mentioned the ever growing importance of the Internet.
During my tenure as an FCC Commissioner, I have been guided by a single principle: ensuring that all Americans benefit from the communications revolution. I am very concerned about the need to bridge the Digital Divide, the gap between the information "haves" and "have-nots," and the importance of access by all Americans to advanced communications capability and the Internet. While technology promises the Death of Distance, too many Americans remain on the losing side of the Digital Divide. Nowhere is this more true than in Indian Country.
While Americans on average enjoy a telephone subscribership rate of 94 percent, many communities and areas throughout the country do not fare as well. According to a recent U.S. Department of Commerce report, telephone penetration generally correlates with income. For example, only 78 percent of households with incomes less than $5,000 have telephones. Other factors play a role as well, including race, education, and age. And Indians living on tribal lands are still the least connected of all. Telephone subscribership rates on tribal lands fall under 50 percent in many instances and even under 30 percent, as in the case of the Navajo reservation. According to 1990 Census data, just 47 percent of Native Americans had telephones. As part of the FCC’s ongoing proceeding, Western Wireless submitted data indicating that in its 19 state service area, Indian telephone penetration remains below 50 percent.
There is something extremely wrong with this picture. It is our statutory and moral obligation to bring telecommunications to Indian country. In 1996, Congress recognized the important principle of universal service. For the first time in history, federal law says that all Americans should have access to quality telecommunications services. The federal trust relationship between tribal sovereign governments and the federal government suggests that we have an obligation to do even more. Indeed, history, notions of equality, and our Nation’s founding principles tell us that it is unconscionable that Indians, the first Americans, remain the last Americans to enjoy the wonders and benefits of the Information Age.
These woeful statistics are not new, and this is not the first time that the federal government and others have taken notice. What is new, however, is that the Federal Communications Commission has not only taken notice, but is now on a path towards concrete action. We have set about to change this picture, to improve these statistics, to facilitate telecom build-out, to increase telephone subscribership, to better the lives of Native Americans.
During the past year, the FCC has taken significant strides to create a dialogue on Native American issues and to find solutions to limited access to telecommunications. We have identified legal and policy issues and sought input on how to improve telephone access on tribal lands. I am pleased with the progress we’ve made, but our efforts reveal that we have more work to do.
Last year, for the first time in the history of the FCC, we held field hearings to examine the pressing issue of access to telephone service on Indian reservations. Last January, Chairman Bill Kennard and I participated in a hearing held here in Albuquerque at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. In March, the Commission held a second field hearing, this time at the Gila River Indian Community in Chandler, Arizona. We also visited several Indian lands, including the Jemez and Picuris Pueblos here in New Mexico.
All told, four of the five FCC Commissioners participated in one or both of the hearings. This is truly unprecedented. These visits provided us with an opportunity to observe firsthand the state of telephone service in these reservations and pueblos and to hear directly from tribal members about their experiences. I’m sure I speak for my colleagues when I say that this experience developed a keen awareness of the fundamental importance that access to telecommunications can have on people’s lives. And I came away with several impressions.
First, the hearings began a dialogue among the parties who can bring about the change necessary to improve access to telecommunications in Indian country. My fellow Commissioners and I spoke with representatives of many Indian tribes, with the private sector, with state governments and consumer groups. Together, we hold the keys to identifying obstacles and finding solutions to improving access. We need to promote a more active involvement by tribes in telecommunications policy matters. I want to thank you for being here today to further our efforts to bring the communications revolution to Indian country.
Second, during the hearings we heard some impassioned and powerful statements asserting the importance of sovereign rights and tribal self-determination. Now, I know many experts in Native American law who have trouble when it comes to analyzing telecommunications law in the context of service to reservations. Yet I believe that the Commission must recognize the sovereign status of Indian tribes, including tribes’ rights and responsibilities.
Third, we need to think beyond the traditional approaches and solutions to expanding service and increasing subscribership. Each Indian nation is unique in its land base, environment, economics and social issues. Yet Indian lands are characterized by vast geographic areas with small populations. As a result, it’s very expensive to create a ubiquitous telecommunications infrastructure. We need to look into the effectiveness of our existing support mechanisms in Indian country. We need to examine a variety of technologies, including wireless and satellite communications, as solutions to remedy the communications gap on tribal lands.
Finally, I was very disappointed to learn that most of the tribal representatives at the New Mexico hearing were unfamiliar with the FCC’s support programs that assist low-income telephone subscribers. The Lifeline program reduces low-income subscribers’ monthly bill for basic telephone service. The Link-Up provides assistance with the cost of installation. It is unacceptable that Indians living on reservations are not receiving assistance because of a lack of knowledge of the established Lifeline and Link-Up programs. We need to do a better job of getting the word out, and I am committed to doing so. I am very pleased that we recently created a new Consumer Information Bureau, which should serve as a strong resource for consumer education initiatives.
At the New Mexico hearing, George Arthur, a Council Delegate of the Navajo Nation, made a very simple, straightforward plea. He noted that for several years he represented the Navajo Nation at scores of panel discussions with federal representatives, and that more often than not, little progress resulted from his interactions. He recounted that it often takes years for federal officials to respond, to provide feedback, to propose – let alone adopt – policies to address clear-cut needs. He asked that we at the FCC keep tribes apprised of any proposals or initiatives responding to the panel discussions. Well, I’m not sure if Council Delegate Arthur is with us this morning, but I’m pleased to report that we’re back, we’ve got some proposals, and we want his input!
Following the field hearings, some of our staff at the FCC rolled up their sleeves and went to work. In response to the testimonies and concerns we heard, they identified a series of questions and developed a number of proposals to address the issues that limit telephone service in unserved or underserved areas, especially on tribal lands. In August, the Commission adopted two items that ask questions and seek comment on proposals to remove regulatory barriers to telephone service on tribal lands.
One of the items looks at some very important issues, including the current levels of telephone subscribership on Indian land, matters of jurisdiction, designation of new entrants to provide service on tribal lands, and possible changes to the federal universal service support mechanisms. The other item focuses on potential wireless and satellite policy initiatives to increase telephone service on tribal lands. Later this morning we’ll have the benefit of hearing from members of our FCC staff about these two items, but I would like to say a few words about them.
The items put forward concrete suggestions on how to provide telecom services to Indian country and other unserved and underserved communities. For example, we seek comment on a proposal that the FCC provide an additional portion of the universal service support to increase telecom deployment on tribal lands. We ask if we could expand the consumer qualifications for Lifeline support to ensure that low-income consumers on tribal lands may participate. With regard to wireless and satellite services, we ask whether modifications of technical rules would encourage existing providers to extend service to tribal lands. In making these proposals, our goal is simple: to facilitate deployment of service and increase subscribership on Indian lands. To do so, we need your help.
When we adopted these items, I expressed the hope that parties would provide input in these proceedings. I wish to congratulate the Indian community for your response. We are still accepting comments, but thus far Indian participation in these proceedings has been unprecedented. We have received over 25 separate filings representing tribal interests. And we still have another round of comments to be submitted on the universal service item by January 19. Your participation demonstrates the importance of access to communications, and I encourage you to keep involved in our process. I look forward to reviewing the full record when the comment cycle is complete and acting on these important items.
At the New Mexico hearing last year, Stanley Pino, Chairman of the All Indian Pueblo Council, summed up why we’re here today most eloquently. He said, "we want to have our sunsets and make a good living, too. We want to be safe in our homes and be able to give our children every possible advantage. To do so, we need affordable telephone service, adequate lines and serious respect for our cultural identities." I believe we are on the way towards making this plea a reality.