The lack of communications services in Indian Country – be it broadband, mobile, traditional wireline phone service, radio or TV broadcast service – is well known. By "virtually any measure, communities on Tribal lands have historically had less access to telecommunications services than any other segment of the population,” according to a recent assessment by the FCC.
Approximately 63 percent of Tribal land residents lack access to fixed broadband speeds of 25 mbps upload and 3 mbps download, as compared to 17 percent of the U.S. population as a whole. The disparity is even higher for residents of Tribal lands in rural areas, with approximately 85 percent lacking access. Even for fixed 3 mbps/768 kbps or higher, approximately 25 percent of residents of Alaska native villages and 33 percent of residents of Tribal lands in the lower 48 states lack access to this level of service, according to the 2015 Broadband Progress Report. This presents serious obstacles to the efforts of Tribal nations to preserve their cultures and build their internal structures for self-governance, economic opportunity, health, education, public safety and welfare.
Closing the Divide
The Commission’s Tribal agenda was forged first during the term of Chairman William E. Kennard as part of efforts to close the telecommunications divide between Indian Country and the rest of the United States. Through two major field hearings in 1999, the Commission learned about the lack of services in Indian Country and the impact it had on peoples’ lives. Testimony painted a picture of communications services that were so lacking and so expensive to provide that the commission ultimately took a number of critical regulatory actions.
The hearings laid the foundation for a range of policy initiatives to address the lack of communications services on Tribal lands. First and most importantly, in 2000, in response to the call for dealing with tribes as sovereign nations and creating a framework for developing relationships with them, the Commission adopted a policy statement on establishing a government-to-government relationship with Native American tribes. The Tribal Policy Statement recognized Tribal sovereignty, federal trust principles and the importance of government-to-government consultation with federally recognized tribes. It also acknowledged the principles of Tribal self-governance and recognized “the rights of Tribal governments to set their own communications priorities and goals for the welfare of their membership.” The Commission’s Tribal Policy Statement and the framework of its goals and principles guide its work with Tribal nations to this day.
The Office of Native Affairs and Policy
In 2010, the National Broadband Plan included dozens of recommendations for expanding the reach of broadband into Indian Country, bringing added energy to the Commission’s Tribal agenda. Among the comments and suggestions were that the Commission increase its commitment to government-to-government coordination with Tribal leaders and consider increasing Tribal representation in telecommunications planning. More specifically, the broadband plan recommended the creation of a Tribal office within the Commission, which would include responsibility for fostering consultation with Tribal governments and leading the development and implementation of a Commission-wide Tribal agenda, in coordination with the other FCC bureaus and offices.
The Office of Native Affairs and Policy, part of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, was then created by a unanimous vote of the Commission on July 29, 2010. ONAP now serves as the policymaking and physical embodiment of the Commission’s commitment to Indian Country. In the order creating ONAP, the Commission explicitly defined the office's role and responsibilities:
"This office will be charged with bringing the benefits of a modern communications infrastructure to all Native communities by, among other things, ensuring robust government-to-government consultation with Federally-recognized Tribal governments and other native organizations; working with Commissioners, Bureaus, and Offices, as well as with other government agencies and private organizations, to develop and implement policies for assisting native communities; and ensuring that Native concerns and voices are considered in all relevant Commission proceedings and initiatives."
The Commission established ONAP to more fully realize its long-standing commitment to the trust relationship between the federal government and Tribal Nations. With ONAP helping lead the efforts, the Commission has worked ever more closely with Tribal governments and incorporated policy recommendations and comments from Tribal governments, Tribal-owned telecommunications companies, and regional and national inter-Tribal organizations. This commitment to the federal trust relationship is found in a number of specific policies and new opportunities for Tribal Nations, including reforms to the Commission’s universal service programs and broadcast licensing rules.