Tech Challenges On The Reservation

Many American Indian tribes lack even the most basic telecommunications technology. Recently, the FCC has begun taking steps to remedy the situation.

by / February 10, 2001
For those living on tribal reservations, the Digital Divide appears to be of little concern. Instead, many are still waiting for the basic telecommunications technology most people take for granted.

The good news is that the efforts of American Indian leaders to bring the situation to light are finally paying off. American Indian-owned telecommunications companies are multiplying, and government interest in remedying the situation is mounting. The FCC, in particular, has not only taken notice, it is actively implementing measures to boost service to reservation territories.

The Analog Divide

While 94 percent of the general population enjoys regular telephone service, only about 47 percent of American Indians can say the same. In places such as the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico, the largest in the United States, the figure is 22.5 percent -- leaving 453,269 households without phone service. According to Raymond Gachupin, governor of the Native American Pueblo of Jemez, N.M., its a recipe for disaster.

"A couple of years ago, a young girl living on the reservation had some kind of a seizure at her home," said Gachupin. "Her boyfriend frantically ran from house to house trying to look for a telephone. When he finally did find one, the lines were down."

The man ran to the Tribal Sheriffs Office to use the radio in the sheriffs vehicle, but the sheriff had to go about a half mile up to a high point to transmit to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Albuquerque. By the time he got through, the girl had died.

According to FCC research, it has taken some American Indians over a decade to have a phone installed. Even where rural phone companies are willing and able to install
a telephone, fees are often prohibitive. "Incredibly, weve heard stories about Native American communities being charged between $40,000 to $150,000 just to install one
line," said FCC Chairman William Kennard.

For those fortunate enough to have phone service, the bills are often exorbitant. Calling friends, family or schools typically ends up requiring a long distance charge or a toll call. Quality of service is often spotty and connections poor due to badly maintained equipment. "If you dont have a basic communications infrastructure, how can you provide adequate health care or education or expect to attract high-paying jobs?" asked Kennard.

A case in point is the Navajo Nation. Spanning three states -- Arizona, New Mexico and Utah -- it covers roughly 25,000 square miles with a population of about 172,000 and an additional 53,000 living outside the reservation. Fifty-one percent do not have indoor plumbing, 48 percent lack complete kitchen facilities, 54 percent still use wood as their major heating source and 77 percent have no telephone service.

While those numbers are a cause for concern, another statistic has Navajo leaders
anxious for immediate action. Currently, there are 250 schools throughout the nation and an estimated 44,000 Navajo enrolled in grades K-12. "Providing them with access to information technology now is a big issue for us," said Navajo spokesperson George Arthur. "We dont want these next generations to be left behind."

Over the past year, the American Indian community has forced the issue into the public eye. President Clinton, for instance, addressed the problem during a recent visit to the Lakota Sioux and Navajo nations. As a result, the White House is proposing a significant budget increase for American Indian programs. This includes $2 billion dollars in tax incentives to encourage the private sector to donate computers, sponsor community technology centers and provide technology training for workers. It also earmarks $150 million to train American Indian teachers in the effective use of classroom technology, as well as $100 million to create 1,000 community technology centers. Commercial-sector technology support is following suit, with millions of dollars donated by Microsoft, IBM, Kelloggs, Compaq, America Online, WebMD and several others.

Perhaps the most important government action to date, though, is the FCCs introduction of two new programs that offer telephone access to people in reservation areas for a minimal fee. Kennard said these new initiatives will "provide Native Americans with the same kind of dependable, affordable service that most Americans have enjoyed for generations."

Administered jointly by the federal and state governments, the first program, called Link-Up America, provides funding for people of low-incomes that want to receive phone service. The other program is called the Lifeline Assistance Program, which, at a rate of $1 per month, makes paying a monthly phone bill affordable, even for the poorest of Americans.

The FCC is also removing the cap on federal Universal Service funds for carriers that purchase exchanges on tribal lands. Further, the agency is revising the practice of averaging the cost of serving high-cost tribal lands with low-cost areas when calculating support amounts.

Native American Support

Representing 19 Pueblo governments in New Mexico, the All Indian Pueblo Council backs the efforts of the FCC as an investment in a brighter future. After all, more than half of the 70,000 Pueblo Indian citizens are 18 or younger. "Its important that we correct the lack of affordable telephone service, as it impedes their access to knowledge and education," said Stanley Pino, chairman of the All Indian Pueblo Council.

Taking a long-term view, Pino points to the relatively recent transformation of the West from wilderness to high-tech affluence. "What we want is the same opportunity," said Pino. "When we learn that the national average telephone penetration rate is 94 to 98 percent and weve been struggling to get even 40 percent in many of the pueblos, we know something is wrong."

According to Pino, having strong, up-to-date telecommunications technology is the first step in establishing a sound technological foundation that can assist in the economic rejuvenation of many reservations. To that end, several organizations are harnessing the FCC and other government initiatives to bring service up to speed on tribal lands.

Tamsco, based in Calverton, Md., is committed to bringing telecommunications systems to American Indian areas. The company has just installed satellite systems in 54 remote American Indian schools that had little or no phone lines and no previous Internet capabilities. The Bureau of Indian Affairs and E-Rate, a federal program designed to subsidize Internet access in schools and libraries, are funding this project.

"Now that we have installed the satellite systems, we are following up with remote network management tools and a virtual help desk," said Tamsco Chief of Staff Fletcher Brown. Through the use of this system, Tamsco network managers can remotely assist tribes in resolving network difficulties.

Tribal Ownership

In some areas, American Indian communities have made great strides in increasing phone penetration by forming tribally owned telecom companies. "Its the six Native American-owned telephone companies that have done the most to improve telephone service on reservations," said Yawakie Madonna Peltier Yawakie, president of Turtle Island Telecommunications, an American Indian-owned telecommunication consulting and engineering company located in Brooklyn Park, Minn. "Not only have they improved and expanded service, theyve done something concrete to provide employment." She strongly believes that American Indian ownership is the surest route to bridging the technological chasm.

One tribe taking matters into its own hands is the Mescalero Apache, a Southern New Mexico tribe on a 723,000 square-mile territory with a population of less than 4,000. It has recently formed Mescalero Apache Telecom, not only to expand basic phone service beyond the current level of 40 percent, but also to ring the reservation with a fiber-optic network and introduce high-speed Internet access. The visionaries behind the project view it as far more than the provision of basic amenities.

"This is all about creating the infrastructure to attract investment in the same way that an emerging market needs to lure foreign capital," said General Manager Godfrey Enjady. "Putting in phone lines and other utility services will eventually bring industry and jobs to our people."

Enjady expects the FCCs actions to further increase the number of American Indian-owned phone companies.

In South Dakota, the oldest American Indian-owned phone company, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Telephone Authority (CRSTTA), is feeling the benefits of the FCCs Link-Up program. "In the first month, we signed up 160 customers to the program and it hasnt slowed down," said CRSTTAs J.D. Williams. "We anticipate the program increasing our penetration rate from its current 75 percent to as much as 90 percent."

Though all agree that these actions are a step in the right direction, some feel that much more needs to be done. "A lot of the FCC information has not gotten out to
the Native American communities," said Yawakie. "As a result, many are not aware of the programs and dont know how to access them."

The Bottom Funding Line

The ultimate success of these FCC initiatives, then, may be determined by how well the agency succeeds in getting the word out to tribes. So far it has posted extensive
Web-site data and organized a couple of well-received conferences in St. Paul and Palo Alto to spread the news. But by allocating a small portion of available funds to promote the initiatives directly to all American Indian communities, the FCC could probably magnify the results by a significant margin.
Drew Robb Contributing Writer