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Definitions hold up low-income telephone service for Oklahoma

OKLAHOMA CITY - The Federal Communications Commission took steps in June 2000 to promote deployment of telecommunications services to individuals living on tribal lands.

The program was set up to substantially reduce the price of basic local phone service for low-income Native Americans and Alaskan Natives.

As the end of September draws near, Oklahoma tribes are waiting to find out whether or not tribal members will have access to the new programs. In Oklahoma, the problem with implementing the service comes down to the definition of what is and isn't tribal land.

Oklahoma has 39 federally recognized tribes within its borders, but only one reservation. The allotment of Indian lands in Oklahoma can make even the best informed on trust land issues quake when the subject of what is and isn't Indian land comes up.

Southwestern Bell is the main telecommunications provider for the Oklahoma area, and with the possibility of thousands of customers becoming eligible for $1-per-month phone service, areas of eligibility and the definition of reservations and former reservations has become a big concern.

The FCC definition of tribal lands would include two-thirds of the state's counties.

The commission's Lifeline and Link Up programs would allow qualifying Native Americans to pay $1 a month for their basic phone service and provide $100 to help offset the cost of getting connected for those who have no phone service. Native Americans on Medicaid and home energy assistance will be eligible for the offset, as will those participating in other programs for low-income individuals or families.

The programs are funded by the Universal Service Fund to which all current telephone customers contribute via a monthly charge on their bills. The tribal lands order would give additional support to local telephone companies on tribal lands.

Originally SBC, the parent company of Southwestern Bell announced it didn't believe the programs would apply to Oklahoma, but since that time it has filed a request with the FCC. The reason was that the FCC included low-income Native Americans living on Indian reservations or former reservations in the Lifeline phone program. In Oklahoma, that definition would include more than half of the state.

In an interview with the Daily Oklahoman, Southwestern Bell spokesman Jeff Kaufmann said, "We don't want to delay the program; we don't want to stop the program. We think it's a good thing." He also said Southwestern Bell is continuing to move forward to implement the program.

Questions about the definition of not only former reservations, but near reservations, have slowed the progress of implementation. Geographic isolation as well as high levels of poverty and low numbers of telephone customers is included as part of the formula for deciding who will and who won't qualify for the programs.

Large population centers such as Tulsa may be excluded, but areas within Oklahoma City may be included. These inconsistencies make it difficult for tribal governments to know whether or not they have members who would qualify for the programs. But many believe they should at least receive information to make some kind of a determination on programs which are available.

Although the deadlines are fast approaching for comments on the issue, few tribes have received enough information to comment. The FCC deadline for receiving comments on the near reservations issue is Oct. 1 and the reply comments on the subject are due Oct. 27.

Many Oklahoma tribes contacted stated they believe the programs could greatly benefit tribal members, but without information, they weren't sure what to do or how to approach implementation.

The federal commission has a Web site, http://www.fcc.gov/indians/, anyone interested can contact to find out if they qualify for the programs. They can read the most recent press releases and policy decisions regarding the telecommunications programs available to those throughout Indian country.