Native Americans Go Wireless
By Heidi Kriz, Tue Feb 13 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Less than 40% of the Native American population in the United States has telephone service. Western Wireless aims to change to that.

Joe Red Cloud is a Native American who left the reservation at a young age. A member of the Oglala Sioux tribe, in South Dakota, Red Cloud had the opportunity to attend a prestigious military prep school. From there, he went on to college in the East, and was working and living in New Jersey, when, in 1994, he got a somber phone call from his mother, back on the reservation in South Dakota.

"I picked up the phone, and it was my mother on the other end, and she said simply, 'you must come home,"" and that was all she said," recalls Red Cloud.

Red Cloud panicked, thinking something terrible had happened. Perhaps his mother was very sick, dying even. He snapped up his friends' gift of an old car to drive back home, hopped behind the wheel and hightailed it back to South Dakota.

When he got there, he rushed to find his mother and determine what the emergency was. When he found her, he asked what was wrong. "Nothing's wrong," she replied calmly." It was simply time for you to come home to your people. They need you."

Red Cloud took that declaration to heart. The eldest male of six generations directly descended from the first Oglala Sioux chief, Chief Red Cloud, Joe already had a finely tuned sense of duty towards his people. But there were so many fundamental challenges the Indian community faced. Where to begin? And where to get the resources and support necessary?

Then, in 1999, Red Cloud found out about President Bill Clinton's intitiatives to help bring telephone service to Indian reservations.

It was a mission long overdue.

Third World Conditions in a First World Country

"In some ways, the conditions that exist on some Indian reservations resemble third world countries," says Red Cloud. "One of the worst areas is telephone service. Less than 40 percent of the Native American population in the United States has telephone service," he says.

And at Red Cloud's Pine Ridge Reservation, which is the second largest Indian reservation in the United States, the telephone service penetration rate was even lower - about 25 percent.

"Compare that to about a ninety five percent penetration rate in the rest of the coutnry and you see how dire the situation is," says Red Cloud.

The effect of lack of telephone service on a reservation community is multifold, and can be disastrous. Lack of service puts Indians at a tremendous disadvantage in society, says Red Cloud. As a result, many cannot get medical care in an emergency. Reaching prospective employers becomes nearly impossible. And taking advantage of the educational, commercial and medical resources on the Internet is practically moot.

But even with the Federal Communications Commission's economic incentives and intiatives to help bring telephony to Indian nations, that didn't solve what is for many reservation communities is the biggest obstacle of all - remoteness.

Logistically, traditional telephone companies have said, it is very difficult to bring land line service to many reservations, because of their remoteness and isolation.

Red Cloud's community, the Oglala Sioux tribe, was no exception. The Pine Ridge reservation is over 100 miles from the next closest major city in South Dakota - Rapid City. Traditional telephone companies claimed that it was simply not cost efficient for them to build the infrastructre necessary to bring land line service to the reservation, even though it has a population of about 30,000.

The solution? Wireless.

Wireless Comes to Indian Country

"Wireless can be the answer to a lot of the practical problems of bringing telephone service to reservations," says Jerry Vaughan, Deputy Chairman of the FCC's wireless commission.

"In many cases, it's just simply a matter of mutual education, and making the introduction, in effect, between the Indian governments and the wireless carriers they might do business with. And it helps to give the wireless companies incentive as well," says Vaughan.

And the incentives are quite significant. Under the auspices of the FCC, there is something called the Universal Service Fund, which was created to ensure that the FCC's publically declared guarantee of universal coverage in the United States, for rich or poor, is met.

It is a federal fund created to subsidize telephone service to poor and underprivileged communities. Telecommunications carriers who qualify can tap into the several billion dollar fund to help cover the costs of their bringing service to so-called "high cost areas," which are largely rural communities.

In 1999, as an enhancement to the agenda of the Universal Service Fund, the FCC announced it's "Indian inititives." Under these initiatives, carriers would be subsidized to an even greater degree in the course of bringing service to reservations, and customers on reservations would have greater subsidies to help pay intallation and deposit costs.

Red Cloud learned about these initiatives and started doing some research on behalf of his community, along with a colleague, George Wilson. Red Cloud decided, because of the remoteness of the Pine Ridge reservation, that getting wireless service would be more cost efficient and more plausible, then land-based telephone service.

Eventually, after an unsatisfying experience with one wireless carrier, Red Cloud learned about a company he thought would have the necessary experience for the conditions that exist on the Pine Ridge reservation.

"We have a 75 percent unemployment rate, and an average yearly income of about $12,000," says Red Cloud. "In many ways the conditions are like that of the Third World."

So Red Cloud chose a company whose international division has experience in developing countries like Ghana and Haiti - a company called Western Wireless.

"In our U.S service territory there are about 85 different Indian reservations, and we are doing business with about 15 to 20 of them," says Gene deJordy, Vice President of Western Wireless.

Western Wireless specializes in dealing with rural communties, so the remoteness of the Pine Ridge reservation didn't phase the company.

Red Cloud was able to negotiate an amazing contract on behalf of his community. Each customer will have unlimited local calling for only $14.99 a month. That means any phone call within the reservation. And it also includes any phone calls outside the reservation that are already deemed local by the regional land line telephone company.

Red Cloud also negotiated to extend "local" coverage to include faraway Hot Springs city - where there is a Veteran's hospital that is frequented by Pine Ridge Indians - and Rapid City, which is about 120 miles away, but is a place where a lot of people from the reservation do business.

And when it comes to the often costly aspect of buying the cell phone or wireless instrument itself, Red Cloud secured Pine Ridge customers the option of paying $300 for each unit upfront, or leasing them for $3 a month. And the monthly lease payment is applied towards the ultimate purchase of the unit.

Not everything has gone so smoothly, however. One of the unique challenges of dealing with the "sovereign" nations of Indian reservations is navigating the intersection between state, federal and Indian governments.

Technically, in order for carriers to qualify for the Universal Service Fund subsidies, they have to achieve "Eligible Telecommunication Carrier" status, which is determined by each state Public Utilities Commission.

Initially, the South Dakota PUC voted to NOT give Western Wireless ETC status.

Red Cloud thinks it's partially because of historical conflict between local Indian tribes and state governments. "The Oglala Sioux have often been at odds with the local government," he says.

But, he points out, Indian reservations are federal land, under U.S. law, and technically, "states cannot regulate or interfere with commerce on federal land."

Western Wireless has appealed the South Dakota PUC's decision. deJordy is reasonably confident that they will ultimately win the decision.

Meanwhile, the FCC is busy planning it's second Indian Telecom Training Initiative conference, for September of this year, after the spectacular success of the first ITTI conference last year. The conference brings together representatives from the telecom industries, the U.S goverment and tribal governments.

"The aim of the conference is to heighten awareness in Indian country about all issues of telecom access, what the options are available, all the technologies, and how to achieve their telecom goals," says the FCC's Vaughan.

Vaughan says they are expecting twice as many participants this year - at least 600 representatives, from tribal governments, the telecom industry and the U.S. government.

Heidi Kriz is a San Francisco-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Wired, Red Herring, and PC Computing.