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Tribes tell the FCC what they want

ST PAUL, Minn. - Possibly for the first time in history, a federal government agency is asking Native Americans what their needs are for telecommunications before making federal policies.

Then they took the issue a step further and offered tribes training and education on telecom issues.

More than 120 tribes attended the Indian Telecommunications Training Initiative 2000 (ITTI) Sept. 24-28, sponsored by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The seminar addressed problems of poor telephone service in Indian country, seminar is targeting tribal leaders who wanted solutions to their telecommunication problems.

Tribal leaders came forward and told the commission, "this is what we want, now work with us in finding solutions."

Vernon James, San Carlos Apache who sits on the board of his tribe's telephone company, approached Larry Povich from the FCC with great concern. "It seems that information is flowing one way, from the FCC to the Indians. What is the FCC doing to gather feedback from the tribes? We would like to tell you our viewpoint and our concerns, and if what you are suggesting will help us."

This loaded question triggered a high-profile meeting with top-level FCC officials and general managers of five of the seven tribally owned telephone companies across the United States. Represented at the session were Gila River Telecommunications Inc., San Carlos Apache, Tohono O'odham Utility Authority, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Telephone Authority and Fort Mojave. The two other tribal owned companies, with representatives attending the initiative, are Saddle Back Communications from Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community and newly organized Mescalero Apache telephone company.

Tribal members who were participated in meeting said they came away with a consensus that the FCC will listen to what the tribes have to say about their needs and Native Americans should have a seat on the advisory committees to the FCC concerning tribal issues.

Belinda Nelson, general manager for Gila River, suggested the commission utilize the National Congress of American Indians or the National Tribal Telecommunications Association to disseminate its request for comments on rule making. "The FCC needs to make good on their commitment in having a government-to-government relationship with tribes and meet with them on a regular basis."

J.D. Williams, general manager for CRST Utility Authority ,was a vocal part of ITTI and welcomed guests in the opening session. He told of his great surprise on discovery that three towers were built on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota without the telephone company's knowledge.

ITTI set up an Internet Caf? or mini-computer lab that allowed seminar participants to test Internet services. While viewing a new company called QuickCall, Williams found three-new towers had been setup on his reservation. By tribal law, any company off the reservation must get approval from the council to set up any type of business, including cell towers.

Williams explained that the tribal telephone company should have been notified. He used terminology coined by the FCC Chairman Bill Kennard to "rocket docket" this problem to tribal council because QuickCall is breaking tribal law and violating the tribal telco company.

Telecommunications is a complicated subject, Williams said, and vendors with promises of great telephone service approach many tribes. What is not being told to those tribes is that there may be a better and less expensive solution to get telephone services to their communities. All tribal telcos commented it would be in the best interest of all parties involved if the FCC offered assistance to the tribes on finding the best solutions for tribal communities, he said.

More than 180 vendors attended the conference in hope of getting business on the tribal reservations. Many tribes have gaming revenues and therefore companies want to offer products or services to the tribes.

Theresa Hopkins from the Navajo Nation said some tribes are so anxious to get telephone service to remote areas that satellite and wireless options are seriously considered. But some of the phone units that must be installed in the homes or cars may cost from $300 to $4,000. She asked how many tribal members can afford to buy these expensive phones. In addition, the estimated cost for satellite telephone service can be as much as $1.25 per minute. A five-minute call would be $6.25 or more; can tribal members afford these high prices? she asked.

Two years ago, the FCC officials said they were shocked to find that telephone service on some Indian reservations was as low as 20 percent when the average in this country is 95 percent.

Kennard went directly to Indian country to find out why telephone service was so limited in Indian country. Many reasons were stated, but the FCC discovered each Indian Nation is unique with its own problems.

The ITTI is to assist tribes in understanding technical aspect of obstacles and possible solutions. The seminar covered most fields of telecommunications, beginning with the basics of understanding how a telephone system works and what types of federal subsidies are available like Lifeline and Linkup for low-income households.

Geoffrey Blackwell from the FCC offered information to any Indian communities and is available at (202) 418-8192 in Washington.

One of the few organizations in Indian country to promote tribal telecommunications is the National Tribal Telecommunications Association (NTTA) which sponsored a reception and invited tribes to attend to answer questions and share their experiences in starting a tribal telephone company.

"We want other tribes to know it's a challenge to operate a tribal telephone company, but it can be done," Robin Fohrenkam from Gila River and secretary for NTTA board of directors, said. "We also want to develop a strong voice to the FCC regarding telecommunications issues in Indian country and communities. There are a lot of questions about companies who want to have Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) status over reservation lands. But this may take Universal Service Funding (USF) away from tribal telcos.

"We need that federal funding. Also, there are reservations that are not aware of the subsidies like the Lifeline program where low-income households can get about $7 off their basic telephone service. A lot of these tribes are not aware of that."

Many of tribal members attending ITTI commended the FCC for stepping forward and asking Indian country what the needs are, but there is a second part of this initiative.

The follow up on issues that affect tribes, such as sovereignty, recognizing that each tribe is unique and has the right to choose a vendor of its choice that best fits its needs.

Tribes have a right to oversee any transactions concerning telecommunications on Indian land, and should not be subject to state jurisdiction or commissions, participants said.

Most importantly, tribal nations have a right to grant permission of any licensing that affects boundaries inside their tribal land. Currently, the FCC designates ETC status without permission of tribal nations, which violates their tribal sovereignty, representatives said. NTTA is developing a proposal that the FCC be required to obtain written approval from the tribal council when designating an ETC within and surrounding reservation boundaries.

Discussion at the NTTA reception examined the fact wireless companies are setting up towers next to reservations boundaries because tower waves can reach from 5 to 15 miles for service. The wireless or cellular service then goes into the tribal land and tribes can do nothing about this because the tower is off the reservation.

Approval of ETC status affects traditional landline companies and possibly may take away federal funding in the future, some participants warned. NTTA decided it would try to develop an awareness in Indian country that wireless companies may try to use tribes as stepping stones to eventually get the wireless or cellular business surrounding their reservation.