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.

Drew Robb  |  Contributing Writer