Remarks to National American Indian Telecommunications Workshop
Commissioner Gloria Tristani
July 30, 1998
Good morning, and thank you for inviting me to be with you today. I should tell you that I consider being here today a double bonus: getting away from Washington -- which I highly recommend for anyone who works in government -- and getting to visit my home state of New Mexico. But more important to me is the fact that I have this opportunity to discuss a topic I care a great deal about, which is telecommunications service to Native Americans. I am well aware of the challenge of cultural and geographic isolation;of the issues stimulated by high unemployment and low-paying jobs; and of the need for more and better education.
I'd like to begin by describing the importance of telecommunications to all Americans, and how it can improve the quality of life everywhere, including Indian country. First, there are the baseline benefits of telecommunications, such as maintaining an instant connection to medical and other emergency personnel. Being able to stay in touch with far-away family and friends is important and sometimes priceless. And the FCC has consistently noted that having basic telephone service enhances employment opportunities simply by permitting the employer and job seeker to communicate conveniently.
I also want to stress that a solid telecommunications network -- whether owned by a tribal reservation or by an established phone company -- better qualifies an area to become a job center. It's safe to say that businesses are very unlikely to locate in an area where telecommunications infrastructure is spotty or nonexistent. Today, one of the things that spurs state governments to encourage competition among local telephone companies is the understanding that competition will result in better service at lower prices. Having modern, competitively-priced telecommunications service is one way states compete with each other to attract businesses to locate there. If there's one message I'd like to convey today, it's that telecommunications networks are not just conveniences for tribes, but necessities. If tribes want to enable businesses to operate on tribal lands, they must seek out ways, in partnership with the industry and government, to get more infrastructure deployed on reservations. The benefits of a better quality of life will easily outweigh the effort it takes to get better networks out there.
As telecommunications gets used for more and more things, including the Internet, the greater value it has to tribal societies and Native American citizens as a whole. In my view, as telecommunications becomes more integral to daily life, people who lack access to telecommunications pay a greater and greater price. That is why I am concerned when I hear that Native Americans' access to telecommunications lags so far behind the rest of the United States population. Since this is the third day of this workshop, at least one speaker has undoubtedly cited the 1990 Census data on telecommunications on Indian reservations. But since it's so striking, I think it bears repeating. On reservations containing at least 500 households, only 47 percent had telephone service. This compares to approximately 94 percent telephone penetration for the U.S. as a whole.
These numbers are alarming to me, given the role telecommunications plays in most people's lives. What I'd like to know is the cause of those low penetration numbers. I'm told is that on some reservations, telephones are not as much a part of Indian culture as in the rest of the U.S. Having grown up in a home with a telephone, I am naturally accustomed to having phone service, and I would never dream of not having a phone in my home. But for people who grow up in a house without a telephone, expectations may be different. I am certainly not here to tell Indian people -- or any other people for that matter -- that they really ought to have telephones. I am here to say that it's not acceptable for there to be 47 percent telephone penetration on reservations held in trust by the federal government if far more Native Americans on those reservations actually want service. And I strongly suspect that is the case. That's where I think the FCC comes in.
There are a number of things I think the FCC should be doing. And under the leadership of Chairman Bill Kennard, I am hopeful that we can improve access to telecommunications among Native Americans. Three weeks ago, Chairman Kennard and I hosted a roundtable discussion among Native American representatives and key FCC personnel to discuss how to get this process started. We received a number of thoughtful ideas and suggestions that are now being actively explored.
In the short term, I think there may be a few things that can be done. One is to see whether there are LATA boundaries that divide reservations and make a short distance call a toll call. If there are, I believe the FCC ought to grant a waiver of those boundaries so we don't artificially increase the cost to Native Americans of using basic local service.
I also believe that the FCC needs an Indian Affairs desk. That is why I am very pleased that Chairman Kennard has asked Eric Jensen to fill that role on an acting basis. I know that Eric shares my commitment to improving Native Americans' access to telecommunications. I am convinced that it will be extremely valuable for the FCC to have someone who is knowledgeable on both Indian law and telecommunications law. The relationship between federal law, tribal law and state law is complicated. I suspect it is often neglected by people establishing communications policy in Washington because of the learning curve that's involved. Having someone to fill this role full-time at the FCC will be a major asset to the Native American community.
Of course, not even a full-time expert on telecommunications law will have an impact until we know the scope of the problem. That is why I strongly favor opening a proceeding at the FCC devoted solely to improving access to telecommunications service on reservations. A Notice of Inquiry by the FCC would be a good vehicle for us to gather information about the landscape today. For instance, although 47 percent of households on reservations had telephones in 1990, it's important to know what percentage of homes on reservations actually have service available to them today. If we find out through the NOI that only 50 percent of homes even have lines running to their houses, then it would be clear that infrastructure deployment is a major impediment here.
But if we are told that telephone lines run to a high percentage homes on reservations, then the low penetration rate has a more complicated cause. Maybe it lies in income, cultural, or governmental disparities between Native Americans and the rest of the population. Or maybe it is due to not being accustomed to having a telephone, so it's not high on the priority list, particularly when there are larger fundamental problems with things like decent housing and basic health care. So I think the Commission needs to open an inquiry on this topic and see if we can't get some hard data on the causes of the low penetration rates on reservations. At that point, we will have a basis to undertake serious long term policy steps to do what Congress told the FCC to do, which is to bring telecommunications service -- including advanced services -- to all Americans.
Another aspect of FCC involvement is disseminating accurate information about telecommunications service on reservations. One aspect of this is to challenge conventional wisdom. For instance, there is apparently the perception that Native Americans on reservations are not interested in having telephone service. Too often, entrepreneurs dismiss the idea of bringing service to reservations as an automatic money-losing proposition. The FCC could start by gathering data on Native Americans' attitudes toward telephone service through the NOI I mentioned. My hunch is that the vast majority of Native Americans really want phone service but are prevented from obtaining it for reasons that may not be readily apparent to the non-Indian world. Publicizing the true market demand -- if it's really there -- is a valuable role for the government. This could provide industry, including those of you in this room today, with a sense of confidence that the demand for service on reservations may well justify network investments there.
Yet another aspect of FCC involvement might be for the FCC to act as a clearinghouse for information about financial support mechanisms that exist for companies to go in and build networks or provide services on reservations. These are things like the programs run by the Rural Utilities Service, the Telecommunications Development Fund, and the Small Business Administration. I also know that various state public service commissions have supported the provision of service to tribal lands in various ways. It's important for carriers, or would-be carriers, to know what is available from government programs that could make the difference in deciding whether to serve a reservation or not.
One final area where the FCC should focus its attention is on the so-called 25/75 issue. As you may know, the FCC is in the process of changing how universal service support is collected and distributed. This has major implications for individual carriers, states, and tribes. In theory, it should be a good thing for reservations because federal support will be targeted to smaller areas than it is today. Given the extreme remoteness of many reservations, the targeting of support to smaller geographic areas should help make sure reservations are not shut out of funding because they're served by a large carrier in a state that overall has below average costs. The reason I say that "in theory" it should be good for tribes is that presently a significant percentage of support for high cost areas is the responsibility of the states, not the FCC. Some have said that a state, under the new approach to funding universal service, might decide not to supply its portion of support because it will go toward supporting another sovereign entity. I am, even now, making myself better informed on the specific legal relationship between reservations and state commissions. But I can say that I will work diligently to have states and tribes reach agreements on these issues regardless of the legal specifics.
The FCC is not the only player in helping to bring telecommunications to reservations. The other is the state public service commissions. I know experts in Native American law who even have trouble when it comes to analyzing telecommunications law in the context of service to reservations. As a former state commissioner, I know that state commissions can be a powerful ally in the effort to improve universal service to reservations. I recognize that there has occasionally been tension in the past between the sovereign Native American tribal governments and states. I would strongly encourage those of you interested in improving the situation on reservations to make an effort to develop a productive relationship with state government officials and state public service commissions in ways that serve your mutual interests. Along these lines, I was very pleased to see that this workshop has already had a panel that included Commissioner Greg Scott of the Minnesota PUC. That's the kind of dialogue and outreach I think will serve Native Americans very well when it comes to access to telecommunications.
As you build relationships with state commissions, the FCC should also take a look at how other federal agencies have worked with Native Americans. I know that the Environmental Protection Agency has recognized tribes as entities just as it recognizes individual states, and it has generally preempted state regulation of Indian lands on environmental issues. The FCC would really benefit from learning whether that model has worked well or not. As a former state commissioner, I am predisposed to favoring a cooperative approach to solving the problem of Native American access to telecommunications. But I am interested in learning about the experience of other federal agencies on matters affecting Native Americans.
I'd like to close by commending the Minnesota Chapter of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society for sponsoring this workshop. I am truly impressed by the practicality of the panels you assembled for this workshop. This is exactly the kind of information exchange that needs to take place between tribes, the industry, and government officials as we approach this telecommunications challenge together. Once again, thank you for inviting me to join you here today.