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FCC To Boost Communications For Tribal Lands

The FCC hosted numerous tribal leaders Wednesday (March 3) as it prepared to take several steps to boost communications on tribal lands, including more and better radio service, greater broadband deployment, and resulting improvements in public safety communications and services like remote health and education.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said at the FCC's March open meeting that it was time not for more talk, or simply recitations of the litany of "unacceptable" statistics, but to take action.

Geoffrey Blackwell, chief of the office of Native American Affairs and Policy, said there was an "alarming lack of service in Indian country."

"We cannot afford to leave any American behind. That must certainly include the original Americans—Native Americans—so that they, too, can reap the benefits of these enabling communications technologies," said Commissioner Michael Copps in a statement. Copps has arguably been the most consistent and persistent voice for improving communications to tribal lands. "We know that broadband access on Tribal lands is minimal, and certainly lower than ten percent. It’s a national disgrace—and it’s hurting us all."

One tribal leader, Jefferson Keel, president of the Native Congress of American Indians, cautioned not to cut off the link-up programs for analog phone service as the FCC migrates that subsidy to broadband, another item on the FCC's public meeting agenda Thursday. He said that could widen the digital divide.

The leaders were in general agreement that Universal Service Fund payments for traditional telecommunications service needed to be grandfathered.

The FCC Thursday will launch a number of proceedings: The Native Nationals Notice of Inquiry will seek input on making it easier for Native Nations to provide broadband and satellite service, and how to fund that effort. The Native Nations Spectrum Notice of Proposed Rulemaking will propose ways to expand wireless service in particular, including making sure tribal lands are part of buildout requirements for wireless service as part of a "build-out or divest approach," as Copps described it. "Too often, wireless carriers find that they don’t need to cover tribal lands to meet our far-too-lenient build-out requirements—except, of course, if they happen to want to cover a highway that cuts through the area," said Copps in his statement.

The FCC is seeking comment in the spectrum notice on five proposals: 1) expanding tribal licensing priority for broadcast to wireless services; 2) a proposal on easing negotiations for secondary leases; 3) a proposal to use fallow spectrum; 4) new incentives for wireless service providers, including a credit for serving tribal lands, and 5) any changes to improve existing wireless bidding credit for serving tribal lands.

A rural radio item seeks to make it easier for Native Americans to own and establish radio stations, including streamlining allotments, particularly for tribes that do not occupy established reservations. It would include extending the Tribal Priority to more than 200 hundred tribes without reservations. The current priority applies to applications for stations that cover at least half a tribal geographic community, excluding nonlanded tribes or ones with small or irregularly shaped lands.

Copps said that too often government promises to Native Americans have been been undercut by lack of follow-through and deceit. "That history was often a trail of tears," he said. He said it was time to chart a new path in a "new spirit of hope and progress."