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FCC establishes tribal office

WASHINGTON – The Federal Communications Commission, after much prodding from tribal officials, has moved to establish an Office of Native Affairs and Policy as part of its national broadband plan.

The FCC announced the creation of the tribal office Aug. 12, saying it would serve all federally recognized tribes and other Native American organizations to improve broadband services and address tribal problems.

“This is a day I have long hoped and worked for,” said FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps. “The hard work – and I mean really hard work – is still ahead of us.”

Copps called the state of communications throughout much of Indian country “unacceptable,” laying partial blame on poverty, unemployment, lacking education and poor public safety.

“Too many promises have gone unfulfilled, too many grand pronouncements have fallen by the wayside, over generations of our history,” Copps said.

“Now is the time to redeem those promises, building a trust relationship and using the revolutionary state-of-the-art technologies available to us to make all Americans the beneficiaries of 21st century opportunity and a more fully-shared democracy. I believe we can make it happen.”

A 2009 report by Native Public Media found that there is a disparity between Internet availability in tribal communities and “a very real digital divide” between Native America and the nation as a whole in terms of access, coverage and affordability of service.

“The greater removed Native Americans are from broadband, the less involvement they are afforded for shaping how to best use new technologies,” the report said. “To benefit from the changing information ecologies, Native Americans need to be involved in the policy process to ensure technology developments meet tribal information needs.”

The report called for the creation of an FCC tribal office to develop policies that would support Native American broadband development.

FCC officials said the new tribal office will work to promote the deployment and adoption of communication services and technologies throughout tribal lands and Native communities by, among other things, ensuring robust consultation with tribal governments and increased coordination with Native organizations.

“Increasing connectivity in Native America is one of the FCC’s top priorities,” said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. “With this new office, the commission will work closely with Native leaders to develop and implement policies that ensure their communities enjoy the benefits of 21st century communications infrastructure.”

The office will be headed by Geoffrey Blackwell, and will be part of the FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau.

Blackwell is a former FCC tribal liaison who has had much experience in the tribal broadband arena. Many tribal officials have worked with him on their policy issues.

“The Office of Native Affairs and Policy is a historic milestone and the culmination of many years of effort by leaders in Indian country and at the FCC,” Blackwell said. “There is a lot of good hard work that remains on the path ahead. As tribal nations and Native communities exercise their sovereignty and self-determination to ensure a bright future for their generations, the entire agency now has a new capability to engage with them.”

Joe Valandra, a Rosebud tribal consultant who is assisting Native American players in establishing telecommunication endeavors, said there is confidence in Indian country that Blackwell will be able to help improve the dire situation, especially given the staff and tools available to him as head of a new office.

Heather Dawn Thompson, a partner with Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal who assists several tribes on broadband matters, said the tribal office development signified an important precedent for the federal government to improve telecommunications in Indian country.

In addition to Blackwell, FCC Chief of Staff Edward Lazarus and Zac Katz, legal advisor in the office of Genachowski, are known to be strong advocates of Indian-focused issues with the commission.

According to the FCC, the office will handle ongoing consultation and coordination with American Indian tribes, Alaska Native villages, Native Hawaiian organizations, and other Native and tribal entities, and will be the official commission contact point for these activities.

It will also engage in work with commissioners, bureaus, and offices, as well as with other government agencies, private organizations, and the communications industries, to develop and implement FCC policies regarding tribal nations and Native communities.