Native Sun News: Oglala Sioux Tribe worried about AT&T cell plan
The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman. All content © Native Sun News.

PINE RIDGE, SOUTH DAKOTA –– The Oglala Sioux Tribe has “grave concerns” about AT&T’s bid for the cell phone service on the reservation, it told the Federal Communications Commission in a filing Sept. 10.

AT&T petitioned the FCC on July 30 for authorization to take charge of the cell phone service on Pine Ridge Reservation, which is controlled by Verizon.

The officials of the Oglala Sioux Tribe “wish to take this opportunity to advise the commission that they still harbor grave concerns about the provision of service on Pine Ridge by AT&T,” the tribal government says in its most recent filing with the FCC.

The statement comes in the midst of contract negotiations between the tribe and AT&T, which seeks FCC approval to assume Verizon’s status as the Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) on the reservation.

The tribe complained to the commission in an earlier filing on May 24, that transferring authorization to AT&T would void the OST’s contract rights in the Tate Woglaka Service Agreement (TWSA).

The TWSA has governed the provision of basic phone service on Pine Ridge, dating back a decade to its painstaking negotiations with the Western Wireless company. A groundbreaking agreement for tribal telecommunications industry, the TWSA led to what the OST describes as a “mutually beneficial relationship,” with Western Wireless, the tribe’s first cell phone service provider.

The company’s willingness to accept tribal authority over provisions of service was the key to execution of the TWSA. It subsequently led to the FCC’s designation of the company as the first Eligible Telecommunications Carrier on the reservation.

As telecommunications evolved, Alltel took Western Wireless’ place as the Pine Ridge ETC and later received government permission to cede the designation to Verizon, which would now cede it to AT&T, if approved by the FCC.

The U.S. Justice Department ordered Verizon to relinquish its frequencies in several service areas, including Pine Ridge Reservation, when the company acquired Alltel properties. The department allowed Verizon to choose what companies it would offer a transfer of frequency spectrums. Verizon chose AT&T and promised to transfer operations within a year of FCC’s approval.

Then OST asked the federal government to deny transfer of ETC designation from Verizon to AT&T. The FCC denied the tribe’s request, but conditioned its approval of the transfer on whether the tribe and AT&T could come to satisfactory contract terms.

In May, OST accused AT&T and Verizon of “working together to steal from the Oglala Sioux Tribe.”

In an FCC filing, OST stated: “After over a year of avoidance, expansive litigation, and bad faith negotiations, it is clear that the country’s two largest telephone companies are conspiring to steal from the poorest Native American tribe in the country one of their very few valuable assets.

“The only way to assure continuous and affordable service to Pine Ridge is for the tribe to exercise control over the service on its reservation,” OST added.

The FCC has given AT&T until Sept. 27 to reply to OST’s most recent statement of “concern.” Verizon filings at the FCC claim AT&T will be bound to the longstanding Tate Woglaka Service Agreement. AT&T negotiations representative Juaneta Browne was not available for comment. But her company’s FCC filings say “AT&T will offer to undertake the rights and obligations” under the TWSA.

OST charges this is “weasel wording” because the terms do not constitute a commitment.

The tribe claims it has secured $46 million worth of subsidies in the form of Universal Service Funds available from the federal government in an unprecedented effort to help Western Wireless and its successors initiate and operate cell phone service on the reservation. No cell phone service existed previous to the TWSA, and less than half of the reservation had access to hard-wired telephone connections. Today cell phones are the predominant form of telecommunications on Pine Ridge.

Universal Service Funds are a support mechanism established by the FCC to ensure that high quality, affordable telecommunication service is available to low-income consumers and those who live in high-cost or rural areas. Tribes can access them through the FCC’s ongoing Indian Telecommunications Initiatives government-to-government outreach effort.

AT&T recently filed a petition with the FCC asking for authority to collect $4 million a year in subsidy payments from the Universal Service Funds on Pine Ridge, like its predecessors have.

The tribe’s legal counsel Jonathan Canis told the Native Sun News the FCC’s pending decision on subsidies could motivate OST and AT&T negotiators to reach an agreement.

“Hopefully this proceeding will be a lightening rod and that will help drive people to reach a mutually acceptable solution,” Canis said.

(Talli Nauman is the co-director of the independent media project Journalism to Raise Environmental Awareness. She is the Native Sun News’ Health and Environment contributing editor)