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FCC eyes Indian country phone problems

WASHINGTON - Most of America is moving quickly into the age of the Internet. Surfing the Web for information, shopping online, and even paying bills and banking online is common.

However, the situation in Indian country is vastly different. Tribal communities are still striving to gain a key tool needed to use the Internet - a phone line.

Tribal households and schools throughout the country have always lagged far behind the rest of America when it comes to basic phone service. The 1990 Census showed that 23 of the 48 largest reservations had telephone service to fewer than 60 percent of their residents while 16 had fewer than half the population served.

Tribes still struggle to improve access to an ever-increasing tribal population. As Indian country moves into the 21st century, service rates on Indian lands remain far below the national average.

The Federal Communications Commission ( FCC) reports that 77 percent of households on the Navajo reservation are without phone service, with 68 percent on the Oglala Lakota reservation in South Dakota, 65 percent on the Crow reservation in Montana, and 64 percent on the reservation of the Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota.

Smaller reservation communities also experience low phone-services rates. On the Goshute reservation in Utah and the Lovelock Paiute reservation in Nevada 73 percent of homes have no telephone service, while 42 percent of households on the Winnebago reservation in Nebraska are without phones. Combined these three tribes represent 461 households.

In general, tribal communities have less access to communication services than low-income communities across the United States. In 1998, the poorest U.S. households had a service rate of 78 percent, while households on the 48 largest reservations, at all income levels, had a service rate of 46 percent.

"Our schools may have Internet capability, but we don't have all the phone lines to serve them," said Nez Perce Chairman Samuel Penney. "It costs too much money for us to run the phone lines we already have, not to mention the ones we need."

Since passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the FCC has stepped up government efforts to improve telecommunications services to underserved communities in need, including tribal communities where some areas have no service at all.

Recently, tribal leaders began meeting with FCC officials to target major problem areas. In those meetings, tribal leadership identified difficulties ranging from geographic isolation to poor information to economic barriers.

The FCC then conducted two formal field hearings in early 1999, where tribal representatives, telecommunication service providers, local public officials, and consumer advocates testified on a variety of issues, including the quality of telephone service on reservations, costs of delivering services to remote areas having very low population densities and the complexities of governmental jurisdiction and tribal sovereignty.

At those hearings, some service providers said there are tough federal and tribal requirements on rights of way, making it difficult to expand services. Tribal representatives on the other hand, said that for tribal consumers, there is a high connection cost to run phone lines to remote areas. Basic hook-up in some cases could cost as much as $160,000 to extend service to one location.

Following these meetings and from the information provided by witnesses, the FCC initiated two proposed changes to regulations that target impediments to phone service on reservations.

In considering changes, the FCC is examining how universal service programs might be modified to increase telephone subscribership by providing targeted financial support to tribal communities and creating incentives for carriers serving tribes, or those willing to do so in the future. It also is exploring how wireless service rules might be modified to permit and encourage economically efficient wireless service to Indian communities.

The lack of basic telecommunications services on tribal lands places tribal communities at a tremendous disadvantage. Emergency services cannot be reached, individuals seeking jobs cannot provide prospective employers with contact information, schools cannot contact parents in emergencies and access to the Internet is highly limited.

The FCC cites a number of factors which contribute to the low penetration rates of phone service on tribal lands.

"The number one reason in most cases is the geographic remoteness of many reservations," said FCC Commissioner Gloria Tristani. "Other obstacles include sparse population clusters and low-income levels, but we're working to find solutions"

In early August, the FCC published a final rule to extend wireless telecommunications services to the most underserved tribal communities, hoping that going wireless well help solve some of the problems associated with traditional phone lines.

Under the rule, the FCC will make bidding credits available to successful providers who use their licenses to deploy facilities and provide services to federally recognized tribes with a telephone penetration rate at or below 70 percent.

Following requests by tribal leaders, the FCC also issued a policy statement this summer which reaffirms its commitment to tribal sovereignty, federal trust principles, and the importance of agency consultation with tribes.

The final rule on wireless service will become effective in October.

- Most of America is moving quickly into the age of the Internet. Surfing the Web for information, shopping online, and even paying bills and banking online is common.

However, the situation in Indian country is vastly different. Tribal communities are still striving to gain a key tool needed to use the Internet - a phone line.

Tribal households and schools throughout the country have always lagged far behind the rest of America when it comes to basic phone service. The 1990 Census showed that 23 of the 48 largest reservations had telephone service to fewer than 60 percent of their residents while 16 had fewer than half the population served.

Tribes still struggle to improve access to an ever-increasing tribal population. As Indian country moves into the 21st century, service rates on Indian lands remain far below the national average.

The Federal Communications Commission ( FCC) reports that 77 percent of households on the Navajo reservation are without phone service, with 68 percent on the Oglala Lakota reservation in South Dakota, 65 percent on the Crow reservation in Montana, and 64 percent on the reservation of the Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota.

Smaller reservation communities also experience low phone-services rates. On the Goshute reservation in Utah and the Lovelock Paiute reservation in Nevada 73 percent of homes have no telephone service, while 42 percent of households on the Winnebago reservation in Nebraska are without phones. Combined these three tribes represent 461 households.

In general, tribal communities have less access to communication services than low-income communities across the United States. In 1998, the poorest U.S. households had a service rate of 78 percent, while households on the 48 largest reservations, at all income levels, had a service rate of 46 percent.

"Our schools may have Internet capability, but we don't have all the phone lines to serve them," said Nez Perce Chairman Samuel Penney. "It costs too much money for us to run the phone lines we already have, not to mention the ones we need."

Since passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the FCC has stepped up government efforts to improve telecommunications services to underserved communities in need, including tribal communities where some areas have no service at all.

Recently, tribal leaders began meeting with FCC officials to target major problem areas. In those meetings, tribal leadership identified difficulties ranging from geographic isolation to poor information to economic barriers.

The FCC then conducted two formal field hearings in early 1999, where tribal representatives, telecommunication service providers, local public officials, and consumer advocates testified on a variety of issues, including the quality of telephone service on reservations, costs of delivering services to remote areas having very low population densities and the complexities of governmental jurisdiction and tribal sovereignty.

At those hearings, some service providers said there are tough federal and tribal requirements on rights of way, making it difficult to expand services. Tribal representatives on the other hand, said that for tribal consumers, there is a high connection cost to run phone lines to remote areas. Basic hook-up in some cases could cost as much as $160,000 to extend service to one location.

Following these meetings and from the information provided by witnesses, the FCC initiated two proposed changes to regulations that target impediments to phone service on reservations.

In considering changes, the FCC is examining how universal service programs might be modified to increase telephone subscribership by providing targeted financial support to tribal communities and creating incentives for carriers serving tribes, or those willing to do so in the future. It also is exploring how wireless service rules might be modified to permit and encourage economically efficient wireless service to Indian communities.

The lack of basic telecommunications services on tribal lands places tribal communities at a tremendous disadvantage. Emergency services cannot be reached, individuals seeking jobs cannot provide prospective employers with contact information, schools cannot contact parents in emergencies and access to the Internet is highly limited.

The FCC cites a number of factors which contribute to the low penetration rates of phone service on tribal lands.

"The number one reason in most cases is the geographic remoteness of many reservations," said FCC Commissioner Gloria Tristani. "Other obstacles include sparse population clusters and low-income levels, but we're working to find solutions"

In early August, the FCC published a final rule to extend wireless telecommunications services to the most underserved tribal communities, hoping that going wireless well help solve some of the problems associated with traditional phone lines.

Under the rule, the FCC will make bidding credits available to successful providers who use their licenses to deploy facilities and provide services to federally recognized tribes with a telephone penetration rate at or below 70 percent.

Following requests by tribal leaders, the FCC also issued a policy statement this summer which reaffirms its commitment to tribal sovereignty, federal trust principles, and the importance of agency consultation with tribes.

The final rule on wireless service will become effective in October.