Closing the Digital Divide: Connecting Native Nations and Communities to the 21st Century

Apr 05 2011

Senator Daniel K. Inouye


WASHINGTON, D.C. – In my 30 years of service on the Indian Affairs Committee, I have been fortunate to learn about the history of our country and its relations with the indigenous, native people, who occupied and exercised sovereignty on this continent. As a nation we have changed courses many times in the policies governing our dealings with Native Americans. And, native people have suffered greatly.

Finally, over the last several decades, we adopted a policy of recognizing and supporting the rights of this nation’s first Americans – Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians. We must continue our resolve to uphold this policy. Telecommunications is an important investment we can make in their future.

In 2004, I chaired a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing on the Native American Connectivity Act. That hearing focused on ways to help tribal governments develop the necessary telecommunications infrastructure so that Native communities can have access to basic telephone service as well as broadband and wireless technology. While some progress has been made over the years, as clearly outlined in the Federal Communications Commission’s National Broadband plan, there are significant unmet needs and opportunities in Native communities.

Today’s hearing will examine the ongoing communications challenges facing native communities including Indian Tribes, Alaska Native Villages, and Hawaiian Home Lands. Native Hawaiians have had a special political and legal relationship with the United States for the past 183 years as evidenced through treaties with the United States, and are included in more than 188 federal statutes. Historically these communities have had less access to telecommunications services than any other segment of the U.S. population.

The lack of good, reliable, and affordable telecommunications infrastructure impedes economic development, educational opportunities, language retention and preservation, and access to health care and emergency services.

According to the most recent data, less than 70 percent of households on Tribal lands have basic telephone service compared to the national average of approximately 98 percent. Further, it is estimated that broadband reaches less than ten percent of tribal lands, compared to 95 percent of households nationwide. In Hawaii, Native communities face the challenges of being rural, remote, and non-contiguous — both on island as well as between islands. Alaska shares many of these same challenges with its rural and remote villages that are isolated and not connected to road systems.

I am very pleased the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has taken an active interest in identifying and working to meet the needs of Native communities through its adoption of the National Broadband Plan and creating the Office of Native Affairs and Policy with Geoffrey Blackwell as its Chief. The adoption of multiple agenda items of great interest to Native communities last month is a testament to these efforts. I also appreciated the time FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and Mr. Blackwell spent in Hawaii learning first-hand about the special challenges facing Native Hawaiian communities.

Identifying the needs and how best to address them is only part of the equation. Reducing barriers and providing sufficient financial support to help Native communities will be critical to success. Of the $7.2 billion provided in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to fund broadband-related projects, $46.3 million was awarded to Native American awardees. An additional $285 million was awarded for projects intended to benefit tribes. The Rural Utilities Service, through its Broadband Improvement Program, provided $158 million in grants and loans to native communities, in addition to loan assistance provided to native communities through RUS’s traditional programs.

Given the magnitude of the needs, this can only be considered a down payment. Unfortunately, given the cost cutting environment on Capitol Hill, creative funding mechanisms will be necessary to support efforts to fully connect native communities. The worst thing we can do is provide for an empty promise. Too much of that has gone on over these many years. We have much to make up for in terms of our nation’s commitments to the Native people of this land.

I look forward to hearing from our distinguished panel of witnesses on these important issues and working with the FCC and Native communities to achieve our common goals.