BRINGING Service to All IN THE Tribal Lands [Rural Telecommunications]
(Rural Telecommunications Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) ribal lands in the United States are among the most challenging communities with respect to telecommunications. Across most of the Indian country, national carriers that rely on return-on-investment analysis have been slow to provide service to tribal lands, and that has been the impetus behind the creation of many tribal téleos. The goals of these companies focus on more than profitability. They strive to strengthen their communities by providing greater access to telecommunications services, creating sustainable businesses that provide jobs, and developing telecommunications infrastructure that promotes economic and social development. Basic Business
For numerous tribal téleos, there are still growth opportunities in providing basic phone service. Close to one in five native people still don't have basic phone service, making telephone subscribership levels on tribal lands the lowest in the country. Outside of Indian lands, the national service rate approaches 98%.
One company on a staggering growth curve, and providing top technology to the well-covered Fort Berthold Reservation, is Reservation Telephone Cooperative (RTC; Parshall, N.D.). When rock fracturing technology started being used in the 200,000 square mile Bakken oil formation, its small town became a boomtown reminiscent of the gold rush era. That's put unique pressure on RTC. As of May 1, RTC had 1,170 pending service orders, including 661 for connecting new service.
Royce Aslakson, RTC chief executive officer (CEO)/general manager, explained that as a result of bringing fiber to the oil rigs and well site facilities, farms and ranches passed en route now have fiber they were unlikely to get otherwise. That has allowed some to gain access to fiber services for the first time. The boom has also created well-paying jobs. In 2007, RTC 8 had 58 employees. Since the Bakken discovery, RTC has grown to 108 employees: 94 full-time and 14 part-time.
But growth has drawbacks, too. Aslakson said those include the loss of personal relationships with customers, difficulties finding qualified employees who can hit the ground running and increased wait time for service orders to be completed.
Sacred Wind Communications (Albuquerque, N.M.) is another company to successfully tap into growth potential. Though it is not tribally owned, it's wholly dedicated to serving the tribal community. It was formed in 2006 through the purchase of last mile infrastructure from Qwest Corp. At that time, 76% of homes on Navajo land had no access to basic phone or broadband due to lack of infrastructure. CEO John Badal suspected access was limited because the financial incentive was low and the time-consuming and arduous process of getting rights-of-way is an added deterrent.
With an exclusive focus on tribal needs and the use of Rural Utilities Service (RUS) loans and the Universal Service Fund (USF), Sacred Wind invested $50 million to create a total network. That included improving on copper wire, creating two central offices, adding fiber optics for new capacity and creating a network of communications towers that serve a direct distribution point. In a service territory roughly the size of Delaware, 80% of the homes now have coverage. That is expected to expand to 90% by year-end, with 100% of those homes having access to broadband. That effort has created quality jobs for tribal members, brought in investments from outside of the state and added about $50 million to the taxpayer base in the state of New Mexico.
In response to feedback on the impediments to broadband adoption, late in 2012 the FCC created the Lifeline Broadband Adoption Pilot Program. Gila River Telecommunications Inc. (GRTI; Chandler, Ariz.) and HopiTelecommunications Inc. (HTI; Flagstaff, Ariz.) are among the 14 eligible telecommunications carriers (ETCs) selected to participate. The pilot is intended to expand broadband use and provide high-quality data to the commission on how the Lifeline program could be structured to promote the adoption and retention of broadband services by low-income households. The specific pilot offering varies by ETC.
At HTI, ETC status has already helped fund DSL expansions and service upgrades, but the company reached a plateau around 500 subscribers. General Manager Carroll Onsae reports that service costs and computer affordability were key roadblocks. HTI's pilot has been tailored to address these commonly cited reasons. Kicked off in August 2012, the HTI pilot is tracking participation of four groups. One group was offered low-cost computers; the second and third groups each received a reduced rate, but a different speed of DSL, along with low-cost computers; and the fourth was offered a choice of low-cost computers or discounted DSL service. All participants received computer training.
GRTI has just over 1,000 DSL lines for a service area with 12,000 residents. For its pilot program, rolled out in May, a limited group of qualified participants were offered the choice of various discounted broadband price points at different speeds. Participants also could elect to get a low-cost computer. Consumer choices are expected to reflect price point preferences and whether the offering of a low-cost computer entices the use of broadband.
Companies like Tohono O'odham Utility Authority ( Sells, Ariz. ) view broadband as a key component of its product offerings. Rather than seeing growth in basic service, Tohono is losing about 5% of its 3,800 landline subscribers a year due to people switching to cellphones. Its focus is now on offering a higher capacity fiber to the home to provide access to things like distance learning, medical resources, streaming video applications and new business opportunities.
Tohono General Manager Mike Bethurem believes the biggest challenges the company faces are continually finding the funds to continue to expand service to unserved areas, and trying to keep operating costs at a level that can be covered by a bill people can afford.
To realize its goal of providing a higher capacity pipe, Tohono has two major ongoing projects. One is rolling out fiber to the home. The $10 million project will provide broadband in heavier-populated areas of the reservation. A Broadband Initiative Program (BIP) award is financing 75% of the project, and a low-interest RUS loan is covering the remaining 25%. A $7 million middle mile project is running fiber to villages and is funded with a 50/50 split in financing between a BIP grant and another RUS loan.
Future financing is the major concern. Tohono, like other rural téleos, is trying to figure out how to make up lost revenue due to USF reform. With the reduction in high-cost loop support and talk of reducing the regulated rate of return, Bethurem foresees the possibility of losing 15% of the telco's current revenue stream.
Federal aid also plays a significant role for tribal telco consumers. The national average poverty rate for American Indians averages 27%, though for some tribes that number is almost two and a half times higher. Without programs like Lifeline and Link-Up that have special provisions for those on Tribal Lands, phones would be unaffordable.
For example, GRTI has 100% network availability to its reservation and a poverty rate around 49%. While 84% of the population has phone service, 80% of access lines are paid for through Lifeline assistance.
Nationwide in 2012, Tribal Land Lifeline subscribers increased close to 75% from the year prior. For that same period, the nation's nontribal Lifeline subscribers increased close to 15%. (Refer to Table 1.)
Today there are 10 tribal téleos that have the federal ETC certificate necessary to offer these, and other, forms of customer assistance. As part of recent USF reform this year, these ETCs are required to serve as liaisons between tribal governments and the FCC Office of Native Affairs and Policy to gather information that will help ensure tribal voices are taken into account in FCC proceedings.
For other potential customers, lack of finances and help from ETCs isn't the issue. It's the time and resources it takes to track down information like a legal service address. Like other service providers, Sacred Wind needs customers to provide several pieces of documentation establishing legitimate residency and to provide a rural address for 911, which often doesn't exist. The telco addresses these obstacles by obtaining customer approvals and making 100-mile trips to the county to file for addresses on their behalf. Long-standing homes may no longer have a copy of the home site lease. Those cases require a visit to the Navajo Nation capital to get a copy of the lease.
Téleos have looked to offer other conveniences, such as potentially life-saving services. For its aging demographic, GRTI implemented an Alert 1 program that is similar to the call-for-help Lifeline pendant, and it has supplied enhanced 911 service. E-911 calls are forwarded to the company's own public safety answering point (PSAP), which routes emergency services to the appropriate location using vertical and horizontal coordinates rather than street addresses. This system also interfaces with traditional outside PSAP systems. Sacred Wind introduced a 211 call service to link customers to United Way, which provides them access to things like resources for elderly care and supplemental food services.
Like other demographic groups, socioeconomics vary from tribe to tribe, as do their challenges and successes. That makes the service offerings and marketing efforts somewhat unique for each tribal community. However, like their nontribal counterparts, access to financing for network improvements, the restructuring of USF, users unfamiliar with computer technology and widely dispersed homes separated by often installation-challenging topographies are commonly cited challenges. Government will continue to play a key role in making it possible to provide phone and broadband service to all.
The [Lifeline Broadband Adoption Pilot Program] is intended to expand broadband use and provide high-quality data to the commission on how the Lifeline program could be structured to promote the adoption and retention of broadband services by low-income households.
Anna Henry is a freelance writer. She can be reached at headIineink@comcast.net.
(c) 2013 National Telephone Cooperative
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