GAO: Telephone service lacking in Indian Country

Despite improvements in bridging the digital divide, many homes in Indian Country still lack basic telephone service, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

Nationwide, 98 percent of homes are telephone subscribers. But only 69 percent of American Indian households in the lower 48 states have service, the GAO report said, citing data from the 2000 Census.

The rate for Alaska Native households was somewhat better, at 87 percent. But this was still below the national average, the Congressional review noted.

Despite the disparities, telephone subscriber rates in Indian Country have improved in the past decade, the GAO said. A 1995 report from the Census Bureau found that only 47 percent of Native American homes had service.

Still, some reservations are far behind the rest of the United States. Only 34 percent homes on the Kickapoo Reservation in Texas, for example, have telephones.

The largest reservation in the U.S. -- the Navajo Nation -- also had similarly poor service. Only 38 percent of homes had telephones, according to the report.

On the other end of the spectrum, the GAO found that the Kalispel Reservation in Washington had 100 percent coverage. But only 25 Native communities -- 14 in the lower 48 and 25 in Alaska -- had rates that were close to the national average of 98 percent, the report said.

A large number -- 57 tribes in the lower 48 and 29 in Alaska -- had telephone service rates greater than 90 percent. Examples included the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota (94 percent), the Osage Reservation in Oklahoma (92 percent) and the Flathead Reservation in Montana (92 percent).

A far greater number -- 127 Native communities, including 78 tribes in the lower 48 states -- fell in the 81 percent to 90 percent range. The Zuni Reservation in New Mexico had a 78 percent rate, the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota had a 75 percent rate and the Tohono O'odham Reservation in Arizona had a 73 percent rate.

A significant number of Native communities, 62 total, had rates between 71 percent and 80 percent. Another 18 had rates between 61 percent and 70 percent while 11 total fell below 60 percent.

Tribal officials contacted by the GAO attributed the lack of widespread telephone service to a number of reasons. "The barriers most often cited were the rural, rugged terrain of tribal lands, and tribes' limited financial resources," the report said.

The rural and rugged nature of tribal lands means bringing telephone service to reservations can be costly, putting tribes at a great disadvantaged, tribal officials said. Some also said the lack of technically trained tribal members posed a problem.

A number of tribes, however, are overcoming these barriers and are taking steps to improve the situation with the help of federal and private grants, by developing their own telecommunication systems and by turning to other technologies, such as wireless service. The GAO visited six tribes to find out how they are addressing the lack of telephones on their lands.

The Coeur d'Alene Tribe in Idaho, for example, used a Rural Utilities Service grant from the Department of Agriculture to develop a reservation-wide wireless Internet service. "The tribe applied for an RUS Community Connect Broadband grant to purchase and deploy a wireless system to provide high-speed Internet access to all residents of the tribal land," the report said.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina partnered with a local business to build a fiber optic cable network that serves the reservation and surrounding communities. The initiative enables the tribe to provide reliable telephone and Internet service, something that has been lacking in the area, the report said.

To help more tribes, the GAO recommended that the Federal Communications Commission collect more data to assess the technological needs of Indian Country. For example, no one has ever collected Internet service rates on reservations, the report said.

In response to the recommendation, the FCC agreed that more data was needed, but the agency said it wasn't in the best position to determine what types of data to collect. So the GAO recommended Congress direct the FCC to take action.

The report also recommended a Congressional amendment to address a unique situation that has arisen for tribal libraries that are unable to tap into certain technology funds due to limitations imposed in state law.

The Telecommunications Act is due for a major overhaul and tribes are working to ensure it contains pro-tribal provisions, said Joe Garcia, the new president of the National Congress of American Indians. Garcia has taken a personal interest in the issue due to his background in electrical engineering and his long career in the technical field.

"In 1996, the Telecommunications Act did not include specific Indian language but we're a step ahead of the game this time," Garcia said earlier this month at the National Press Club.

"Some people claim there is no digital divide," he added. "I know better and we all know better. There is a big digital divide and the legislation should help that."

GAO Report: "Telecommunications: Challenges to Assessing and Improving Telecommunications For Native Americans on Tribal Lands"
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Relevant Links:
Indian Initiatives, FCC -
The Digital Divide Network -