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FCC says it's working to improve tribal relationships

WASHINGTON - The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) says it has been working over the past few years to improve relations with tribes across the country.

Efforts included significant increases in funding for tribal programs and new policies to work with and help tribes. To a degree, these efforts have been successful, but some tribes, especially those east of the Mississippi, say there is still ample room for improvement.

"We applaud the FCC's actions last year in issuing a policy statement establishing a government-to-government relationship with Indian tribes and approval of a plan to subsidize telephone service in Indian country," said Keller George, president of the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET).

"However, there is still a long way to go in establishing a productive working relationship between the FCC and tribes."

Last year, the FCC increased by $30 million a federal program that underwrites the cost of phone service for the poor on tribal lands. Under the program, low-income residents on tribal lands should be eligible for phone service at under $10 a month, an average discount of more than $30.

The FCC also issued a new policy for working with tribes and says it is attempting to streamline the process through which companies can become eligible for federal subsidies. These subsidies are intended to encourage wireless and telecommunications companies to provide service on tribal lands.

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What many tribes in the east are saying, is that some important concerns are being ignored and the consultation process needs to be improved.

One issue cited by USET as an ongoing problem is licensing and placement of communications towers. With telecommunication companies building towers, many are concerned some towers will have an "adverse impact" on cultural and religious sites. USET member tribes say the FCC ignored federal laws which protect these sites and consistently failed to consult with tribes on this matter, leaving the telecommunication companies as the sole contact for tribes.

"The FCC adopted rules last year to provide incentives for wireless telecommunications carriers to service Indian country," George said. "At the same time, the FCC seems to have attempted to delegate its consultation responsibilities to the tower industry to which we strongly object."

While the FCC said it is stepping up efforts with tribes, planning telecommunications conferences this year in Minnesota and Nevada, officials admitted that work remains and the issue of wireless communications and tower placement is problematic.

In a March issue of Communications Daily, FCC Commissioner Gloria Tristani said that the programmatic agreement on wireless communications towers fell short of the FCC's obligations to consult with tribes. She said "that the overwhelming majority" of tribal comments told them that their approach was not working and that these responses were evidence that "our understanding of tribal consultation is misguided."

USET forwarded its concerns to the FCC and the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. The FCC conferences with tribes are scheduled for June and September of this year.