FCC embraces sovereignty
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JUNE 9, 2000

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission officially adopted an order that will reduce the cost for basic phone service through the federal Lifeline program, a 1985 program created to provide discounts to low-income customers.

According to the FCC, the order should result in phone service for under $10 a month for qualified consumers on reservations throughout the country.

The order also reduces the cost it takes to begin service through another program called Link Up America. Previously, the Link Up gave low-income customers a discount of up to $30 for a first time installation. The FCC increased that discount for reservation customers to $100.

The Link Up program also offers an incentive to local telephone companies, encouraging them to let consumers pay their hookup charges on a deferred payment schedule.

In order to take advantage of the FCC initiatives, an interested Indian Country resident must contact a local telephone company or the state telecommunications agency (see link below) in order to determine eligibility, which is based on income. The FCC has broadened the criteria for which an Indian consumer can participate in either the Lifeline or Link Up program.

Whether or not the two programs are successful depends both on the consumer and telecommunications companies, who must adequately publicize the availability of them. But even if consumers are ready and willing to take advantage of the programs, there is some concern about costs not covered by either initiative.

Testimony provided by Karen Buller, CEO of the National Indian Telecommunications Institute (NITI), a national organization which encourages technology access for Indian Country, underscores one of the major barriers to increased phone on reservations. In 1999, Buller told the FCC that an initial line into a reservation home can cost upwards of $60,000.

Navajo Nation tribal spokesman Ray Baldwin Louis reiterated the high cost concerns in an interview yesterday with the Associated Press. "We just don't have the financial means to run telephone lines for hundreds of miles to accommodate five or six homes," said Louis.

The Navajo Nation has been a primary focus of President Clinton's efforts to bridge the digital divide, due to its low telephone penetration rate, population, and physical size. Approximately 82% of households on the Navajo Nation do not have phones, including the home of spokesman Louis.

At least one recommendation Buller made in 1999 was formally adopted by the FCC. Buller testified on the lack of involvement the FCC has with tribes.

Yesterday, the FCC acknowledged its government-to-government relationship to tribes, recognized the sovereignty of tribes as well as its trust responsibility, and said they will consult with tribes on issues that "significantly or uniquely affect tribes."

Related Stories:
Breaking the Digital Divide (Tech 6/8)
Indian Country: Falling into the Digital Divide? (Tech 04/17)
Clinton Pledges Indian Country Support (The Talking Circle 04/14)
Clinton's Proposal Draws Skeptics (The Talking Circle 4/14)
Indian Country: Falling into the Digital Divide? (Tech 04/11)
Digital Divide Stats (Tech 4/11)

Relevant Links:
If you or someone you know is interested in participating in the Lifeline or Link Up program, consult the FCC for a list of state telecommunications regulators.
The FCC:
The National Indian Telecommunications Institute: