Canada appears to be doing far better than its southern neighbours in ensuring that all communities – including aboriginal – receive access to basic telecommunications service. Despite being the richest and most powerful country in the world, less than half of its native households have a telephone connection. Gloria Tristani, a commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission, spoke to this issue Feb. 21 in a presentation to the National Congress of American Indians in Washington. An edited excerpt of her comments appears below: Access to communications in Indian country is abysmal. Although 94% of American households have telephones, less than half of Indian households have basic telephone service. It is unconscionable that Indians, the first Americans, remain the last Americans to enjoy the wonders and benefits of the Information Age. In 1999, for the first time in the history of the FCC, we held field hearings in New Mexico and Arizona to examine the pressing issue of access to telephone service. As a New Mexican, I was all too familiar with tribal lands’ lack of access to telecommunications.… Since that first hearing two years ago the commission has engaged with tribes in an effort to increase access to telecommunications in Indian country. Thus began the tribal lands initiative. Last June we adopted policies that will make a difference in Indian country, including a policy statement recognizing tribal sovereignty and revised programs to increase subscribership and telecom build-out on tribal lands. We also are working directly with tribal governments, helping them determine if they want to operate as phone companies and bringing them together with industry to spur development. First, we adopted a policy statement expressing the commission’s commitment to promote a government-to-government relationship between the agency and federally recognized tribes. The policy statement recognizes the sovereignty of tribal nations and the FCC’s trust responsibility. Second, we altered our universal service programs to substantially reduce the price of basic local phone service for low-income consumers on tribal lands. The Lifeline Assistance program reduces low-income consumers’ monthly local phone bill. In June we provided low-income consumers on tribal lands with an additional discount up to $25 per month, bringing basic monthly rates down to $1 per month in most cases. We also increased the assistance available under the existing Link-Up program for initial telephone service installation costs. We increased the assistance by $70, for a total of $100 per consumer on tribal lands. In addition, we broadened the qualification criteria for these universal service programs to include means-tested and income-based programs that tribal members participate in. In the first three months of these programs, the Navajo Nation has reported an increase of 859 new telephone subscribers. We also changed our wireless auction rules to include a tribal land bidding credit to encourage the development of wireless services on tribal lands. Carriers that win licenses that overlap tribal lands can invest in serving Indian lands and deduct those costs from the auction prices. While we have done much in the past few years, we have really only started the process. As a nation we must bridge the digital divide not just in Indian country but across America. As information technology becomes increasingly important in our economy and daily lives, we have an obligation to ensure that all Americans have access to the tools necessary to participate in the information economy. Despite the disparities, I believe we will overcome these gaps and prevail over the digital divide. There is simply no choice. It’s too important.