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Remarks of Chairman William E. Kennard
Federal Communications Commission
Public Hearing on Telephone Service to Indians on Reservations
"Overcoming Obstacles to Telephone Service to Indians on Reservations" Albuquerque, New Mexico
Friday, January 29, 1999

(As Prepared for Delivery)

Good morning and welcome to the first of several Federal Communications Commission hearings to examine the lack of telephone service in Indian reservations across our nation.

I want to thank the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center for hosting us today, and the people of New Mexico for such gracious hospitality.

In Washington, we feel particularly fortunate because we get to work with all the able public servants you send us from New Mexico. But now that I have been in your beautiful state, I am thinking maybe we are not getting the better part of this deal. Maybe it would be better if we came to New Mexico instead especially in the winter.

Either way, I am especially fortunate to work with Gloria Tristani daily at the FCC. Her commitment, drive, and quick mind make my job easier. She is an ally, but more than that, she is a friend.

And on Capitol Hill, I have been able to work with Senators Bingaman and Domenici, and I look forward to working with two of the most exciting and energetic new members of Congress, Heather Wilson and Tom Udall. I know that we will hear about these two not just in this Congress, but throughout the years ahead.

Today, we are making history. This is the first time that the FCC has ever looked into the problems of underservice on Indian reservations, and the first time that the Commission has asked the Indian nations what communications services they want and what they need. This is history that has been a long time coming.

It is shameful that as we enter the 21st century, the basic telecommunications advances of the 20th century are not widely enjoyed by our land's oldest people. Since New Mexico lays claim to the oldest road in the United States, serving Albuquerque for over 400 years, it's more than ironic that our newest road, the information Highway is available to so few of its original settlers.

Indian reservations across this country have the worst housing conditions, highest unemployment, least economic opportunity, and lowest quality health care. To this, we can add that they have appallingly inadequate access not to only advanced telecommunications services, like high-speed Internet access, but even to basic phone service. It is estimated that telephones reach 94 percent of Americans. In Indian reservations, they reach only 40 to 55 percent. And on the largest reservation in the country, we are told that only 25 percent of the Navajo families who live there have a phone.

Many nations have informed us that it sometimes takes them over 10 years to get a telephone installed. Or sometimes the phone company is willing to install a phone for as much as $40,000 or even $150,000. Meanwhile, other reservations are still waiting to get basic residential service. And for those with phones, when they get their bills, they discover that to call their friends or families, the hospital, or school, it was a long-distance call. To add insult to injury, the quality of service is spotty at best as the equipment serving them is antiquated.

Is it no surprise, then, that these areas suffer so. If you do not have the basic communications infrastructure, how can you run a business? If you can't make a simple phone call, how can you create high-paying, high-tech jobs? If you can't call quickly for emergency help, how can you begin to have quality health care?

Unfortunately, Darrell Gerlaugh (Gur-loff) of the Gila (Hee-la) River reservation in Arizona found this last point out the hard way. When several years ago his grandfather got sick, his family had to hitch-hike to get to the nearest pay phone to call an ambulance. Two hours later, help came. But it was too late for his grandfather.

While we are here to focus on the lack of service to Indian reservations, let us always remember that there are other underserved communities right here in New Mexico and throughout rural America. When I became chairman of the FCC, I vowed that I would do everything I could to make sure that all Americans from the young to the old, from the rich to the poor, and from those whose families just came to this country to those whose ancestors walked this land centuries before Columbus have access to the opportunities of the Information Age. Success for us as a nation depends on everyone having the knowledge to use these technologies and the chance to use them and enjoy them at work and at home.

That is why we are here today. To see and learn firsthand about this problem so that we can begin to address it. The problem is not one of technology. If we have the know-how to make a phone that can fit in your shirt pocket, we can figure out a way to put phones on Indian reservations. The problem is one of will. Will we change the rules and incentives so that companies will bring these services? Will we figure out a way for states, tribes, and the federal government to work together? And do we have the will to make this happen?

Seeing all of you here -- community leaders, tribal leaders, members of congress, state officials makes me believe that the answer to this last question is yes. All of us together can and will bring basic phone service to our Native American friends and neighbors.

I now want to turn to my esteemed colleague, Commissioner Gloria Tristani, my host in New Mexico and someone who I know will lead us in our quest for a solution to this problem.

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