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New report confirms telecommunications lag in Indian country

WASHINGTON ? A new report released by the National Congress of American Indians shows that tribal communities have less access to communication services than low-income communities in general across the United States

The report was aimed at providing recommendations to bridge the telecommunications gap in Indian country. 'Connecting Indian Country: Tribally-Driven Telecommunications Policy,' is a culmination of a year's worth of research seeking input from tribal leaders on how best to address technology and telecommunications policy in their communities.

Last year NCAI received a grant from the AOL Time Warner Foundation to gather information from tribes looking to address telecommunications issues.

'Clearly, it is critical that Indian country have equal access to both basic and advanced telecommunications technology in order to be part of today's economy,' NCAI President Susan Masten said. She also is the chairwoman for the Yurok Tribe.

'However, we must make technology fit the image of our culture, rather than make our culture fit the image of technology. Too many times, Native Americans are overlooked because people fail to understand their needs.'

Tribal households and schools throughout the country have always lagged far behind the rest of America when it comes to basic phone service and computer technology. The Federal Communications Commission reports that 77 percent of households on the Navajo reservation still have no phone service, with 68 percent on the Lakota's Pine Ridge 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.

Tribal communities also have less access to communication services than low-income communities in general. 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 just 46 percent.

In 1999, the Economic Development Administration published a survey that found only 39 percent of the rural households in 48 Native communities surveyed had basic telephone service, with 9 percent having personal computers and 8 percent Internet access. That same year, the Commerce Department issued a report that said the number of rural Native American households with a computer was much lower than the national average (26.8 percent to 42.1 percent), as was the number of Native American households with access to the Internet (18.9 percent to 26.2 percent).

The new NCAI report highlights recommendations to improve current conditions based on two national Tribal Leaders Summits. The report is broken down into distinct areas such as access, economic development (including workforce training and education), content and sovereignty.

Major recommendations call for addressing the high cost of telecommunications, better consultation between the FCC and tribal governments, encouraging tribal-business partnerships and incentives to businesses that provide telecommunications services to tribal nations, enacting legislation to promote basic phone service and advanced telecommunications technology in Indian country and protection of cultural content on the Internet.

'As this report illustrates, the 'Digital Divide' is a real and powerful threat to many American communities,' said Kathy Bushkin, president of AOL Time Warner Foundation and senior vice president of AOL Time Warner. 'This report is crucial to understanding the challenges of creating digital opportunity in Indian country.'

The report is part of NCAI's technology initiative, which also includes a Web-based digital divide clearinghouse at www.indiantech.org. The initiative is funded with support from the AOL Time Warner Foundation.