Sunday, December 5, 2010

Broadband for American Indians

USDA’s Rural Development Telecommunications Program is providing broadband services to the Havasupai Reservation located at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The remote tribe can only be reached by an eight mile mule ride down to the bottom of the southwest corner of the Grand Canyon or by helicopter.

There was very little chance that the private sector would invest in telecommunications infrastructure in such a remote and geographically challenging area. However, a 2004 USDA Rural Development Community Connect grant for $1,247,705 enabled the reservation to use four Bureau of Indian Affairs towers located on the Havasupai and Hualapai Reservations. This enabled the Tribal system to have basic internet connectivity.

As a result of the Tribe’s Community Connect grant, the reservation will now be able to benefit from the USDA Broadband Initiative Program. An award to Niles Radio helped to install a new tower on the border of Havasupai/Grand Canyon National Park. This will enable the Havasupai to move their system towards Flagstaff instead of Peach Springs and the result will be to lower internet connectivity costs.

In the future, it will allow the Tribe to extend broadband services to Supai Camp inside the Grand Canyon National Park (GCNP) which will further strengthen the Tribe’s communication system because Supai Camp is occupied by not only the Havasupai Tribal members working at the park but is also home to Tribal members requiring long term off reservation medical services.

The FCC is also dealing with broadband issues related to American Indians. “High speed broadband is still a stranger to most of Indian Country—even plain old telephone service is at shockingly low levels of penetration resulting in fewer than 70 percent of Native American households connected to basic telephone connectivity” said, FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps speaking to the National Congress of American Indians in Albuquerque New Mexico in November.

The FCC is working with tribes through the Native Nations Broadband Task Force to identify better methods to use to collect and report on broadband information for native communities. In addition, FCC’s Office of Native Affairs and Policy is also helping to coordinate discussions with broadband providers and tribes.

The National Congress of American Indians wants to see FCC’s Office of Tribal Affairs remain directly involved in the development of the Tribal Broadband Fund. The thought is that only a flexible tribal-centric planning approach used to administer such a fund will allow it to succeed.

Right now, the FCC is moving towards creating funding models for a broadband oriented Universal Service Fund. The Joint Board on Universal Services has just issued recommendations on changes to the Lifeline and Link-Up programs to help low income households get connected.
As Commissioner Copps explained, “Also to tackle the issue of support for services on Tribal lands, we must also ensure that Tribal members living near Tribal lands but not on the lands can benefit from the same Lifeline and Link-Up available to the population living on Tribal lands.

In addition, the FCC is in the process of creating a Mobility Fund to expand mobile connectivity at 3G levels and above in rural areas. In the future, the FCC may want to provide a similar mechanism targeted specifically to Tribal Lands.

He further commented, “A major theme of the National Broadband Plan is the need for spectrum to support new wireless services and also to expand the role of Tribes as policies and rules are developed for spectrum usage in those license areas that overlap with Tribal lands.”