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Digital divide still an issue for Indian Country
FRIDAY, MAY 23, 2003

Tribal leaders and representatives urged a Senate committee on Thursday not to leave Indian Country behind when it comes to telecommunications.

With rates of telephone service trailing the rest of the population and Internet access far below the national average, witnesses called for additional funding, changes in federal law and full recognition of tribal sovereignty. "We know our needs, we know our numbers, we know ourselves," testified Cora Whiting Hildebrand, a council member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota.

Tribal experts testified about the gains they have made in recent years. By entering into private, public and tribal partnerships, they said they have begun to bridge the digital divide in Indian Country.

The Southern California Tribal Chairmen's Association, which represents 19 tribes, launched its "digital village" project in 2001 with the help of three-year $5 million grant from Hewlett-Packard. Denis Turner, executive director of the organization, said it has boosted attendance rates for tribal children to 99 percent. This year, all Indian high school graduates in San Diego County will receive a laptop computer with cutting-edge wireless Internet capabilities.

"That's very tangible," Turner told the committee. "It shows that our kids are learning the system that all Indian kids throughout Indian Country need to learn."

Valerie Fast-Horse, who directs information services for the Coeur d'Alene Tribe of Idaho, said tribes in the Pacific Northwest have banded together to improve technology for their people. The Makah Nation, the most remote in the region, will be able to provide high-speed Internet access for $25 a month, she said, a highly competitive rate when compared to similar services in urban areas.

On the Pine Ridge Reservation, Hildebrand recounted major improvements that have have been seen in the past 18 months alone. Telephone usage has nearly doubled because a wireless company brought service to the tribe, she said.

The service was possible due to an October 2001 ruling by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The agency pre-empted the state of South Dakota in order to authorize an agreement between the tribe and Western Wireless Corporation, a private company that submitted to tribal regulatory authority.

But the FCC needs additional direction to make these kinds of projects a reality, said Madonna Peltier Yawakie, president of Turtle Island Communications, a technology firm based on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. She called on Congress to make changes in federal law that will recognize full tribal sovereignty over non-Indian activities.

Currently, FCC engages in a legal analysis to determine whether tribes have regulatory authority, an often-lengthy process. Last year, for example, the commission refused to recognize the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe's sovereignty after an eight-year dispute between the tribe and South Dakota.

That isn't the only roadblock, witnesses said. Federal funding is in jeopardy because the Bush administration is cutting technology programs that have benefited tribes.

The fiscal year 2004 budget proposes to eliminate the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which has provided $17.5 million to tribes in recent years. "The president's budget reflects the administration's belief that the program's mission has been fulfilled," said associate administrator Kelly Klegar Levy.

Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) questioned the cuts in light of the significant needs in Indian Country. "I'm glad we are all saying we're going to do our best but at the same time," he said, "we provide zero dollars."

Without adequate technology, Hilda Gay Legg, administrator for the Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service, said tribes will be left behind. "This lack of telecommunications infrastructure contributes to high unemployment, depressed economic conditions, and reduced opportunities and medical care," she testified.

In March, the RUS awarded $20 million in high-speed technology grants. Of the amount, more than $8 million went to American Indian and Alaska Native projects, said Legg.

"Telecommunications is not just a matter of luxury," noted Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.). "It's not just a matter of economic opportunity, it's a matter of public safety."

Relevant Documents:
Witness List (May 22, 2003)

Relevant Links:
Indian Initiatives, FCC - http://www.fcc.gov/indians
The Digital Divide Network - http://www.digitaldividenetwork.org
Rural Utilities Service, USDA - http://www.usda.gov/rus
National Telecommunications and Information Administration - http://www.ntia.doc.gov
Southern California Tribal Digital Village - http://www.sctdv.net

Related Stories:
FCC report shows rise in telephone service (05/13)
FCC denies S.D. tribe's telephone bid (08/30)
New FCC chair raises digital divide doubts (2/7)
Budget bill limits reach of low-power radio (12/19)
Technology tour winds up (10/23)
Colleges receive recycled equipment (10/19)
Indian Country part of technology tour (10/18)
Indians left out of digital divide (10/17)
FCC embraces sovereignty (06/09)

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