A Short Overview of Native American Telecommunications Issues

My New Blog Post for NAMAC


Tribal lands are among the worst served communities in terms of telecommunications in the United States. According to a 2006 GAO report, only about 69% of households on tribal lands had telephone service in 2000.1 This is in comparison with the national rate of 98%. The report identifies four specific barriers to deployment, 1) the rural, rugged terrain of tribal lands; 2) limited tribal resources; 3) lack of technically trained tribal people; and, 4) rights of way issues. The statistical reality of this means that up to 35% of tribal members and nearly 50% of Navajo’s lack access to basic 911 services.2 Broadband deployment in Indian Country is at less than a 10 percent penetration rate and is due to the same barriers reported with analog telephone.3 The bottom line is that Native Americans have been largely ignored by federal telecommunications policy and underserved by telecom providers.


Tribes have a different legal status than other minority groups; the United States has a legal and political relationship with tribes.  Tribal Sovereignty is a philosophical term that is legally constructed and came about through the treaty relationship, is limited via legislation and court decisions, and applied through the actions of Native nation building and self-determination.

At the most basic levels, tribal sovereignty includes the inherent political powers of Native nations to self- govern with each of the 565 federally recognized tribal nations recognized as a distinct political entity.  In political reality, Congress, court rulings and treaties have limited tribal sovereignty.

It is important to understand that tribes were not given sovereignty rather sovereignty of tribes was and is inherent and is legally recognized initially in the U.S. Constitution and later through treaties and court cases. The FCC recognizes tribal sovereignty as is evidenced by their Statement of Policy on Establishing a Government-to-Government Relationship with Tribes 4 and the recent establishment of the Office of Tribal Affairs and Policy.

Any changes in telecommunications access, infrastructure and deployment must take into consideration tribal sovereignty as Tribes actively assert sovereignty as a part of their continued nation building in creating sustainable economic development, education, public safety and other vital community systems.  Tribal lands are characterized by economic conditions and critical infrastructures have not historically been deployed, or grown through market competition, as they have elsewhere in the nation.   Critical infrastructure does not come to Tribal lands without significant federal involvement, investment, and regulatory oversight. Rugged, rural terrain, poverty and historic periods of failed federal policies towards Native peoples and their lands have created a modern atmosphere that requires special economic regulatory creativity.

When the Tribe itself is engaged via tribal centric nation building practices, and its institutions and families are central to the planning, the chance of success is increased.  When tribes are at the center of the planning and implementing process on Tribal lands, this contributes to achieving successful and enduring solutions to the deplorable and long-standing lack of communications technologies in Tribal communities nationwide.


The importance of telecommunications is critical worldwide, but in Indian Country there is a gap to be met.  Often described as the Digital Divide, this gap is real and affects the daily lives of millions of Native peoples in the United States.  There are a number of organizations working tirelessly on the variety of issues included in tribal telecommunications, including the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), Native Public Media (NPM), and the FCC’s Office of Native Affairs and Policy.

Next month, there will be an historic meeting of these organizations hosted by the FCC and the outcomes will be discussed in next month’s blog.  Meanwhile, below are some of the identified issues to be discussed at the meeting.

•    Broadband is the basis and future of economic development, health, public safety, housing, energy, and educational models for the future in Indian Country;
•    The Internet is now classified as a utility and the common carriage for all media platforms;
•    This new digital ecology necessitates Native inclusion;
•    Currently there is an opportunity for Tribes to have a voice at the policy-making table in regards to Broadband development;
•    Broadband is a critical infrastructure for nation building in Indian country;
•    Tribally centric deployment models are most successful in Indian country, not individual residential service models.

Stay Tuned!

1GAO-06-513T: Joe Garcia NCAI Testimony before the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, U.S. Senate: Telecommunications: challenges to Assessing and Improving Telecommunications for Native Americans on Tribal Lands.

2Comments of NTTA in the Matter of the Connect America Fund, A National Broadband Plan for our Future, High-Cost Universal Service Support.

3New Media, Technology, and Internet Use in Indian Country: A Quantitative and Qualitative Study. Traci L. Morris and Sascha D. Meinrath Authors. Published by Native Public Media. 2009.

4FCC: Statement of Policy on Establishing a Government-to-Government Relationship with Indian Tribes, June 8, 2000.

5Native Public Media

Published by Traci L. Morris

Dr. Morris, the Director of the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University is a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma. Under her leadership, the AIPI has grown and diversified its service to Indian Country via an MOU formalizing a long-standing partnership with the Native American Finance Officers Association (NAFOA) and forming the Tribal Economic Leadership Program offering training in Tribal Economic Governance and Tribal Financial Management; access to Entrepreneurship training and tribal business support through Inno-Nations; and Economic Development Consulting; and, the formalization of the Institute via by-laws and an advisory board comprised of both internal ASU leadership and external tribal and non-tribal leadership. In her work at both ASU and prior, Morris has worked with Native American tribes; Tribal businesses; Native American non-profits; Native media makers, artists, and galleries; written a college-accredited curriculum in Native American new media; and has advocated for digital inclusion at the Federal Communications Commission and on Capitol Hill. Morris’s research and publications on Native American media and the digital divide is focused on Internet use, digital inclusion, network neutrality, digital and new media curriculums, digital inclusion and development of broadband networks in Indian Country. Her book, Native American Voices: A Reader, continues to be a primary teaching tool in colleges throughout the country. Dr. Morris is Affiliated Faculty at ASU's School for the Future of Innovation in Society, an Affiliate of ASU's Center for Gender Equity in Science and Technology, a Senior Sustainability Scholar at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, President of the Board of the Phoenix Indian Center, Board member of the Arizona American Indian Chamber of Commerce, and on the Advisory Council of the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums. Formerly, Morris served member of the Advisory Board for the Department of Labor's Native American Employment and Training Council and served a two-year appointment (2014-2016 and 2010-2012) on the Federal Communications Commission's Consumer Advisory Committee. As an entrepreneur prior to her ASU appointment, Morris founded Homahota Consulting LLC, a national Native American woman-owned professional services firm working in policy analysis, telecommunications, education, and research assisting tribes in their nation-building efforts and working with Native Nations, tribal businesses and those businesses working with tribes. Morris has an M. A. and Ph.D. from the University of Arizona’s American Indian Studies, in addition to a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Colorado State University.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: