Federal Communications Commission

Native Americans Category

Addressing the Digital Divide in Indian Country

March 13th, 2010 by Michael Connelly

Last week marked a significant chapter in FCC-Tribal relations, which included Chairman Genachowski’s remarks to the Executive Council of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) on March 2, 2010, followed by the 7th Annual FCC-NCAI Dialogue on Improving Telecommunications Access in Indian Country at the FCC on March 4.  The Dialogue included Tribal leaders, Commissioners Copps, Clyburn, Baker and McDowell, Chairman Genachowski’s Chief of Staff, the Chiefs of the Consumer & Governmental Affairs and Wireless Telecommunications Bureaus, Public Safety Bureau, and other Commission staff.  Quotes from the FCC representatives set the stage for FCC-Tribal relations going forward:

“The goal of bringing broadband to Indian Country is important and urgent.  It will require the Federal government to recognize the importance of Tribal autonomy and work hand-in-hand with Tribal governments as partners.  I look forward to building on the strong relationship between the Commission and NCAI.  Working together, I believe we can turn Indian Country into a model for digital transformation and success.”  - Chairman Genachowski

“Change has begun. We have begun to reorient our institutions for consultation and dialogue with Indian Country and we are opening up a new era that is the most pro-active on behalf of Native Americans in history. There is real commitment – sincere and far reaching, with good faith by everyone and a commitment to build a new bridge between the FCC and Indian Country.”  -  Commissioner Michael Copps

“We are committed to the government-to-government relationship and attuned to the importance of having a historical perspective.  I am pleased with the Tribal Priority order and look forward to future discussions.  We need creative thinking and for Tribes to propose ideas and get feedback.  The problem is easily stated but the answer is complex.”  - Commissioner Robert M. McDowell

Commissioner McDowell also made this statement on a Commission order providing Tribes with assistance in obtaining new radio stations designed to serve their tribal communities.

“I affirm the government to government relationship and my desire to work in partnership with Tribal leaders. My goal is to view everything from its impact on consumers, making sure to do no harm.  Broadband plays a critical role especially in rural and Tribal areas.  The core principal is affordable, high speed open Internet access to all.”  - Commissioner Mignon Clyburn

“I have an open door.  Spectrum reform is needed.  In the short term, there is a need to allocate and deploy as fast as possible, make power level adjustments, issue waivers, deal with tower siting on Federal lands.  In the medium term, we need to look at secondary markets, partnering with Tribal interests to share systems, work on the auction process, improve the Tribal Lands Bidding Credit program and make sure that small carriers may afford to compete in the auction process.  In the long term, there is a need for more spectrum, including in Indian Country.  The FCC is providing leadership and I want to help.”  - Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker

In speaking to NCAI, the Chairman highlighted the special relationship between the Federal government and Tribal governments, the FCC’s commitment to work with Tribes on a government-to-government basis, and respect for Tribal sovereignty and self-determination.  He reaffirmed the FCC’s commitment to meaningful consultation with Tribes to ensure that Tribal communities enjoy the benefits of a modern communications infrastructure, including broadband.  

He said it was unacceptable that, while 65 percent of Americans have broadband in the home, only 65 percent of Indian Country has basic telephone service, with broadband access on Tribal lands estimated to be less than 10 percent. 

Chairman Genachowski spoke about broadband as a platform for job creation and economic growth and a platform for solutions to many challenges including education, health care, energy, public safety, and democratic engagement.  With broadband, entrepreneurs can continue to reside on Tribal lands and still collaborate, innovate, and create new small businesses and high-value jobs because of access to robust and open information networks. 

The National Broadband Plan includes a number of Tribal-specific recommendations to benefit Indian Country.  To enhance communications and consultation with Tribal governments, the Plan proposes three new mechanisms, including a government-wide Federal-Tribal Broadband Strategic Initiative; an FCC Office of Tribal Affairs; and an FCC-Tribal Task Force consisting of senior FCC Staff and Tribal leaders that will focus specifically on broadband deployment and adoption on Tribal lands.  Other recommendations include:

  • A “once-in-a-generation” transformation of the $8 billion Universal Service Fund to build 21st century communications networks, including on Tribal lands;  
  • Allowing more members of the Tribal community to share connectivity funded by the E-rate and Rural Health Care programs, helping more Tribal libraries qualify for E-rate funding, and creating a Tribal seat on both the Federal-State Joint Board on Universal Service and the USAC Board of Directors;
  • Creating a Tribal Broadband Fund to support sustainable deployment and adoption programs in Tribal lands; 
  • Providing funding to upgrade connectivity for federal facilities on Tribal lands;
  • Expanding the FCC’s Indian Telecommunications Initiative and allowing Tribal representatives to participate in our FCC University training programs at no cost.
  • Improving data collection on Tribal lands;
  • Exploring ways of improving Tribal access to and use of spectrum, including extending the new Tribal priority in broadcast radio services to the process for licensing fixed and mobile wireless licenses covering Tribal lands.

Watch Chairman Genachowski's full remarks or read them here. Commission McDowell’s remarks are available here

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