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FCC fines company over tribal phone programs

A telecommunications company that serves a large number of reservations in the West has agreed to pay a $250,000 fine and develop a tribal outreach program under a settlement with federal regulators.

Qwest Communications of Denver, Colorado, was being investigated for two federal programs aimed at increasing phone service on reservations. The Lifeline and Link-Up programs allow eligible Native Americans to purchase service for as little as $1 a month.

As a federally licensed carrier, Qwest can tap into federal funds to get reimbursed for the discount service. But the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) questioned whether Qwest was doing enough to promote the programs after tribal leaders complained last year.

The FCC's Enforcement Bureau began an investigation in October 2003 to determine whether Qwest was complying with the law. After receiving information from the company, the agency released an order yesterday stating it was in the "public interest" to close the case through a consent decree requiring the $250,000 fine.

Under the agreement, Qwest didn't admit to violating the law. But the company agreed to spend $200,000 to promote the Lifeline and Link-Up programs over the next 18 months.

As part of the consent decree, Qwest representatives will attend at least four regional tribal gatherings, including pow-wows, to provide more information about the programs. The company agreed to contact nearly tribe in its service area and develop tribe-specific plans to increase phone service.

The decree also requires Qwest to improve training for technicians who work on reservations, develop public service announcements and work with a Voice of Many Feathers, a Native American employee group.

With a service area of 14 states including more than 70 tribes, Qwest has a potentially large number of reservation clients. Federal statistics, however, show that only about 68 percent of homes in Indian Country have telephone service.

Some key states for Qwest are New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, which have some of lowest telephone usage rates on reservations. On the Navajo Nation, for example, only 37 percent of homes had service, far below the average rates for all three states.

California is also a crucial state. According to the FCC, only 39 percent of homes on the Yurok Reservation in the northern part of the state had telephone service.

Bringing telephone service to reservations is often a difficult, timely and costly endeavor due to lack of infrastructure When Qwest purchased US West Communications, the company inherited a backlog of service requests for the Navajo Nation dating back at least two years.

In 2003, the company signed an $11 million agreement with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and tribal leaders in hopes of speeding up the process. But some landowners raised objections because Qwest wasn't required to compensate Navajo allottees for use of their land before providing the service.

The Clinton administration announced the Tribal Lifeline and Tribal Link-Up programs in 2000. Former President Bill Clinton visited the Navajo Nation as part of an initiative aimed at bridging the digital divide.

Relevant Documents:
FCC Order/Consent Decree (November 22, 2004)

Relevant Links:
Qwest -
Indian Initiatives, FCC -
The Digital Divide Network -