Big Pipes in Indian Country

Forget Africa and China, one of the world’s most underserved populations is right here in the United States.

Native American tribal nations are eying broadband access as the key to sustainable economic growth, and the Federal Communications Commission ( and infrastructure companies finally are ready to partner in the initiative, speakers said Thursday at The National Summit On Emerging Tribal Economies in Phoenix.

While the Bush Administration underscores the value of broadband deployment in accelerating countries’ economies, tribal nations across this country are decades behind the rest of us. On the often rural and isolated reservations, many Native Americans don’t even own a phone, let alone have access to computer-assisted work-from-home options that provide viable source of income or distance education, Web tourism marketing or telemedicine technology that could make quality medical consultation a reality.

These applications are the sorts of things that can bring Indian Country economic development and banish the specter of an underserved, impoverished populace, speakers said.

Tribal collaboration with the federal government and the formation of community communications companies capable of bridging the digital divide are keys to broadband deployment, conference speakers noted.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell, a keynote speaker, said it is critical to reduce the technological barriers to economic development on reservations, but he cautioned a structured approach. “Although we’d like to wire the world immediately,” he explained, people must avoid the “irrational exuberance of the 1990s.”

Powell described how broadband access could improve health care on reservations via videoconferencing sessions among small medical centers on Native lands and urban hospitals. It also could create better job opportunities for tribal members and possibly stem the number of people leaving reservations, he said.

“I fully appreciate this technological nirvana is not here today,” he said. But Powell said his agency will “support the deployment of telecom infrastructure for basic services and lay the groundwork for future deployment of broadband.”

The FCC indeed has provided support for broadband on the reservations. It announced the Indian Telecom Initiative this spring, which includes a number of interactive workshops among tribes, government agencies and industry professionals, and the Link-Up and Lifeline programs address the need for basic phone service in low-income households.

The keynote speakers said tribes are making progress. Located some 120 miles east of Phoenix, the San Carlos Apache Tribe formed its own phone company in 1994, the San Carlos Apache Telecommunications Utility Inc., after US West failed to improve service on the reservation, said Vernon James, executive director of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, Health & Human Services.

Many people at the time didn’t even have access to the telephone. A 39-year-old woman from San Carlos said she put in a request with US West in 1994 for a telephone when she moved from her father’s house into her trailer. “But they just never came,” she said. “A lot of the time when people on the reservation had trouble on the phone line,” US West never even showed up, the woman said.

The tribe purchased US West’s local exchange, overbuilding the old infrastructure with a fiber-optic network that crisscrosses the reservation. In 1994 the reservation had about 600 access lines, according to the San Carlos Apache Telecommunications Utility. By the end of last July, there were four times that number of access lines on the reservation, which has a population of about 13,000.

“Today just about [everybody there] has a telephone,” James said. “We stepped into the 21st century.”

State utility commissions have no authority over Indian tribes, which are recognized as sovereign nations, but tribes seeking to build networks face plenty of red tape, speakers said. They must work with the federal government, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a host of organizations within a tribe and various service and infrastructure providers.

Keynote speaker Ken Cornelius, vice president of sales for Siemens Corp. (, noted that public/private partnerships are critical to making a wired reservation a reality. Government, business and the tribal integration “allows you to cut across boundaries, through the bureaucracy,” he said.

On a cautionary note, speakers also said tribes must define their own technology goals, rather than let the federal government shape them. After all, the cultural differences on reservations can be distinct from mainstream America. Asked why some people don’t have phones on another reservation in Arizona, a plant supervisor for a tribe-owned telephone company cited one reason inconceivable to many Americans: They don’t need one.

“Do we want to tell everyone about us or do we just want the world to leave us alone?” asked panelist Ross Chaney, a member of the board of directors for the Dallas Inter-Tribal Center. “That’s for each reservation to decide for itself.”

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