FCC Launches Broadband Initiative for Indian Tribes

Published July 7, 2010

In response to complaints from Native American tribes that a lack of high-speed Internet services disadvantages tribe members living in remote areas, the Federal Communications Commission has launched a new telecommunications initiative for the groups in June. The commission announced its intent to require current providers to upgrade services to remote areas with small populations and ask Congress for financial assistance for the plan.
According to a press statement from FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps, less than 10 percent of the U.S. Indian tribal population has Internet access. Copps says reliable phone service is less than 70 percent.
“The lack of connectivity is synonymous with rurally disconnected places,” said Leaf Hillman, director of natural resources and environmental policy for the Karuk Tribe in Orleans, a small town in Humboldt County, California. The Karuk Tribe was the subject of a National Public Radio news article on All Things Considered in June that inferred broadband and phone carrier Verizon as not sufficiently responsive to the needs of Orleans and the Karuk Tribe.
Spotty Service, High Unemployment
The Karuks represent about one-quarter of Orleans’ total population of 1,000, according to Hillman. “We are out of reach of normal services and not well-served,” said Hillman. “Frequently we don’t have service, and when we do, it’s pretty spotty at best.”
 “As a result, we suffer a huge economic advantage—not just the Karuk but everybody who lives in Orleans,” said Hillman. “We don’t have technology jobs, we don’t have Internet businesses. What we do have is unemployment rates of 70 percent in tribal communities.
“The tribe has sought for a number of years to bring high-speed Internet to make us more employable, enable us to complete higher education, and pursue online entrepreneurship for our membership,” he added.”This will improve the lives of our people.”
Requirements Questioned
While acknowledging the benefits of broadband are obvious, Michael LaFaive, senior economic policy analyst for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan, poses the question, “What about this community makes it entitled to this particular service? There are tradeoffs in life. If you live in remote areas you can’t expect taxpayers to deliver to you a T-1 line, an art gallery, and an orchestra.”
LaFaive noted the plight of the Cabot Vineyards, referred to in the original NPR story as an example of how economic necessities drive families and businesses from remote areas to where more amenities exist. Business owners John and Kimberly Cabot relocated their winery to nearby Siskiyou County, where phone and Internet service are cheap and reliable.
“They moved their business without relying on government coercion,” he points out.
LaFaive characterized any potential requirement of carriers to upgrade their services in areas such as Orleans as “unfair, inefficient, and unnecessary. There is no good reason for government to coerce a carrier to support any particular market. If a market exists, the carrier will have every reason to do so on their own.
“Worse,” LaFaive continued, “nothing is free. Any mandate will likely redirect precious resources away from other investments the carrier would otherwise make voluntarily.”
Bruce Edward Walker ([email protected]) is managing editor of Infotech & Telecom News.
Internet Info:
“FCC Eyes Broadband For Indian Reservations,” National Public Radio: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128004928&ft=1&f=1003