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Tribal Telecommunications and the Rewrite of the Communications Act

Old Telephone

Communications and telecommunications are of paramount importance in Indian Country.  All infrastructures now intersect with broadband as the base utility, be it economic development, housing, health, education, emergency services, energy, or civic engagement. Tribal reservations are among the most underserved and unserved areas in the country in terms of connectivity, with only 10% broadband penetration, nearly 30% not having access to plain old phone telephone services, many without access to 991 service, and where market forces do not encourage investment; this is where regulatory creativity is a must.  As Congress begins the process of rewriting the Communications act of 1934, they must consider the needs of Tribal nations and Indian Country.

In an era where nothing happens in Congress, at the time of year when business and government are winding down for the holidays and end of the year, the leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have decided to rewrite the Communications Act of 1934 (here’s a link to their video “update” about the process).  They say this will be a multi-year process.

Citing the new proposed legislation as the Federal Communications Commission Process Reform Act of 2013, the goal is (so far) to improve transparency and efficiency in rulemaking requirements, in requirements for rules, and in data for performance measures.  The bill, also calls for an FCC biannual “scorecard” reports or performance statistics reported every 6 months on proceedings and deadlines met.  Access to this information will be required on the FCC Website and the Federal Register (this is already there, but is cumbersome and not easy to access; they are plagued by too much information); it looks like congress wants the information presented in a standardized way to make it more accessible.

Interesting, this bill is really procedural and regards reporting and transparency and does not tackle real issues that need to be addressed, such as FCC authority over the Internet.  The last major rewrite of the Communications Act of 1934 was the 1996 Telecom Act. This was prior to the Internet being common platform for communications; at this time telephone was the common platform. This rewrite did not give the FCC jurisdiction over the Internet, as lawmakers deemed the Internet an information service.  In 2002 this was modified when the FCC classified cable modem service as an information service should not be subject to regulation in order to encourage new investments and market competition.

In a related note, there will be an Oversight Hearing of the FCC on December 12, 2013.  The new Chairman of the FCC, Tom Wheeler and the former Acting Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn will both be in attendance.   On the Agenda is FCC Reform, among other items including spectrum, Universal Service, Commercial Spectrum Auctions, and IP Transition.  No doubt information gleaned will inform the bill.

SOURCES:

Extending Wireless Telecommunications Services to Tribal Lands, http://wireless.fcc.gov/auctions/default.htm?job=tribal_bidding

January 2006 GAO Report, Telecommunications, Challenges to Assessing and Improving Telecommunications for Native Americans on Tribal Lands.

House Energy and Commerce Committee, Communications and Technology Subcommittee

Recent NCAI Resolutions on Tribal Communications and Telecommunications

Request that the Federal Communications Commission Preserve and Protect the Tribal Lifeline & Link-Up Programs, Tulsa 2013

Request that the Federal Communications Commission Work with Tribally-Owned and Operated Telecommunications Carriers to Establish a Tribal Proxy, Reno 2013

Support for the Establishment of a Tribal Broadband Fund and for Other Related Purposes, Reno 2013