As we approach the 21st century, the public's right to basic
services, including electricity, running water and telephone service is taken for granted
by most Americans. The fact remains that not all people have this right. Indian
Reservations stand out as the most obvious example in this matter.
Recently I bumped into a friend of mine in Albuquerque.
After some initial chitchat he mentioned that his cousin who was living with him had
passed away. I had not heard about this and asked him when. He explained that it was a few
months ago, and that they had some problems contacting his family at the time. No one in
his immediate family had telephone service so they had to call the Tribal police station
and have them relay a message to his family. Not only was this a tragedy, but it seemed so
cold and harsh to have a police officer come knocking at the door of this poor family in
the middle of the night, to bring bad news. Funeral arrangements, and coordination to take
the body home, was also difficult as the family did not have telephone service to stay in
touch with each other.
As anyone who has ventured into the remote areas of Indian
country knows, telephone service is extremely dismal. The number of households with
telephone access is less than the national average, and public access pay phones are
I myself have had to deal with the lack of telephone
service on the Reservation. Recently, during the Tax filing deadline, I was almost in a
panic to reach my mother to locate some past records I had left at her place. I could not
reach her or any other person that I knew, in a town of at least 500 people. No one had
telephone service! I was finally able to contact the school where my brother worked and
left a message for him to call me collect. Now that is third world! Even some sort of
voice messaging system would be better than nothing at all.
One of the major problems we face is the unwillingness of
the telephone companies to provide basic telephone service in these areas. Basic telephone
service is unavailable in some areas because the actual telecommunications infrastructure
is non-existent. The telcos' excuse is that the cost of providing service to these areas
is not justifiable in relation to the profit from the customer base.
Since telecommunications companies are fractured and zoned
within the Reservations a local call to a town less than 20 miles away turns into a long
distance call, while a call from an area 30 to 40 miles away is a local call. This is
because of the territorial boundaries that different telecommunication companies operate
on. If a person can only make long distance calls, the difference in the phone bill
becomes more than a household with a less than average income can afford. Thus a
discontinuance of the phone service is inevitable.
Health problems continue to plague the Indian population.
Cardiovascular disease, diabetes and liver disease seem to show no evidence of lowering. A
system called linkup or lifeline enables people with health problems, elderly and low
income to maintain basic telephone service, even if long distance service is discontinued.
However, some telco companies do not always honor this system. Many disastrous results
could have been avoided if basic telephone service were available.
Another incident I recall, is the time the mother of a
friend of mine went into a diabetic shock, and had to be driven 30 miles to the IHS
because an ambulance could not be called due to lack of telephone service. Not only have I
heard of fatalities that could have been avoided if emergency medical teams were called,
but also simple prescriptions were not ready on time because calls were not placed. My own
mother used to use the telephone to call in for a refill of her blood pressure medication,
but lost the ability to do so when her telephone service was discontinued.
An ideal situation to remedy some of these problems would
be for the Tribes to own and operate their own telecommunications companies, thereby
localizing calls within respective Reservation boundaries. Several Tribes have already
made this a reality. However, the cost of undertaking such a task is too often
overwhelming for most Tribes.
Policy change must come from the telephone companies. This
change has to be initiated by the FCC, and carried out with full cooperation of Tribal
entities involved. If this change is not to take effect immediately, policy change must
take effect concerning basic telephone service for those individuals in need, within
telephone companies. This is a must. Emergency calls and 911 access has to be available
for individuals who are in need. Telephone service in Indian country must be addressed,
and steps taken to assure that all who need service are provided an opportunity to obtain
Then and only then, can we begin discussion concerning all
other aspects of telecommunication technology, including the Internet.