The First Americans

The First Americans


I write this flying back from the Native Public Media and Native American Journalists Association joint conference in Tempe, AZ. The weekend left me with conflicting conclusions. On the one hand, I saw excitement, entrepreneurship, and a host of innovative approaches to bring telecommunications and media infrastructure to Native lands. I saw clever and information-filled websites, learned about new radio and Internet news outlets, and sensed high hopes that upcoming spectrum auctions would hasten the arrival of wireless and high-speed broadband to Indian Country and other Native areas.

On the other hand, high-speed broadband service remains a stranger to most Native Americans” and by “most” I mean 90-95 percent of them. It has been aptly remarked that the nation’s first Americans are also the least-served Americans when it comes to the availability of communications infrastructure. And get this: only about two-thirds of our sisters and brothers living in Indian Country have even plain old telephone service! No gigabytes for them, no DSL, a paucity of wireless, very little ability to make that 9-1-1 emergency call that can spell the difference between survival and death. Not even a pay phone nearby. Most folks reading this will be, like me, hard-put to even grasp how crippling these gaps are.

So today’s reality in Indian Country is not a slowly-shrinking communications gap that is on its way to closure. It is instead a widening communications gap consigning yet another generation of Native Americans to a future bereft of the tools they need to become fully participating citizens in Twenty-first Century life.

When I became a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) member in 2001, I had only the shadow of an idea about how different life is in our Native lands. I decided to learn more and traveled to Indian Country and Native Alaskan villages” places where the “have-nots” vastly out-number the “haves,” where poverty prevails over plenty, and where even the people who awake to hope in the morning go to bed in disappointment at night. It was an eye-opening education for this newly-minted Commissioner. It wasn’t the reality I hoped to find, but it was the reality I needed to know. Clearly, I determined, I would try to help.

Unfortunately, 2001 was not the best of times to implement creative communications programs for Native Americans” or, for that matter, any Americans. Washington, DC, was still in the grip of the misguided assumption that the magic of the “free market” would solve all problems, including the build-out of basic communications and broadband networks to every corner of the land. Government, remember, wasn’t the solution to anything; government was the problem. Bush 43 was, if anything, more adamant about it than the Gipper himself. What a price we all paid for that! The costs were even higher for Native Americans. To them it meant still more years of national neglect, economic calamity, and, too often, social devastation. Denied even rudimentary telephone service, they didn’t have any chance at all for a helping hand when it came to broadband.

Things began to change after the 2008 elections. Congress and the President finally told the Federal Communications Commission to develop a national strategy for broadband deployment and adoption” something I had been pushing since my first day on the job. I joined Native leaders in pushing hard to make certain their lands were an integral part of the plan. And they were included. At the same time, we developed better and more respectful consultations, including a Native American Broadband Task Force which has been meeting ever since. At the FCC, then-Chairman Genachowski put Geoff Blackwell in charge of a new Office of Native Affairs and Policy. Geoff is as fine a public servant as you will find anywhere, and he has worked wonders with his small staff to advance such ideas as tribal priorities for Native radio, a Tribal Mobility Fund for wireless, and tribal incentives for the new Connect America Fund that is transitioning our Universal Service program from the provision of basic phone service to broadband.

So we have some things to be happy about. But I am not so happy when it comes to looking at the big picture of where Native lands, or the country taken as a whole, actually is on the major telecommunications and media challenges confronting us today. In spite of a more enlightened approach in Washington, our telecommunications policies place huge obstacles on the road to ubiquitous broadband, and our media policies continue to snuff out the very local, independent and diverse voices America needs to help revive our economy and enhance our democracy.

In telecom, oligopoly (and in many places outright monopoly) has superseded competition, with the result that entrenched companies cherry-pick the neighborhoods of affluence and largely ignore the communities of the disadvantaged. Even in those areas where the telecom giants choose not to build because they can’t make fat enough profits, they have lobbied successfully in some 23 states for legislation precluding communities from building their own municipal networks. So much for people wanting to help themselves” and we were all told that was the American Way, weren’t we? Sadly, our public policies” executive, legislative and regulatory” have failed miserably to stem the advancing tide of telecom consolidation, and each week seems to bring still more big company mergers.

Government refusal to take on the entrenched telecom giants dooms competitive deployment, widens digital divides, and short-circuits the opportunity-creating potential that high-speed, low-cost broadband can bring to every man, woman and child in the land” no matter who they are, where they live, or the particular circumstances of their individual lives. It is the primary reason that the United States continues to show up as an also-ran in the global rankings of broadband performance. Your country and mine is still stuck in fifteenth place, according to a newly-released OECD report, while other ranking indices show us even lower on the bar than that.

So the positive developments I cited earlier won’t get the job done, for Native Americans or any of us, until we disenthrall ourselves and begin to act anew, as the Great Emancipator admonished us many years ago. We should start by declaring a national broadband emergency. I say it’s an emergency because there is no way” no way at all” for a citizen of Twenty-first century America to get by without these digital tools. And there is no challenge confronting our nation that does not have a significant broadband component as part of its resolution. Finding and creating good jobs, providing adequate health care, supporting better schools, ensuring energy independence, preserving our environment, opening the doors of opportunity to every American” each of these depends to a large and growing extent on broadband.

But there is no cheap and easy way there. Why would we expect there to be? Infrastructure is always expensive. But this is about investment in our future; it’s about making sure we have a future. Declaring a national broadband emergency means facing up to the magnitude of the problem, incentivizing creative public-private partnerships (that’s the way we generally built our nation’s infrastructure over the past 226 years), and deciding this mission will be accomplished no matter what. That is when you and I will know that our leaders are finally serious about broadband.

Tackling a problem and committing to a mission depend upon good information and informed decision-making. This was an important part of our discussion in Tempe, too. I am talking now about media. I’ve already mentioned the exciting innovations regarding Native America that I learned about at the conference, and these are solid and significant improvements that need to be encouraged. They show people trying to help themselves, against steep odds” and against a history that relegated them to the wrong side of every divide going back to our country’s founding. But here, as in broadband, we run into obstacles that block the best laid plans and efforts of Native Americans and all Americans. The media environment in which all of us live has been stacked against us. It’s worse for some than for others, and worst of all for Native Americans, but none of us should be satisfied with the truncated media ecosystem that has been foisted upon us. Our media environment, just like our telecom environment, closes its doors to competitive new entrants, independent outlets, local ownership, and any semblance of diversity.

In the last couple of months, we have seen more than $5 billion worth of media mergers and transactions. The pending Gannett-Belo consolidation is just the latest example” unless another deal is being announced as I fly across the continent. By now, I hope most of us understand that the financing of these mega-deals has led to the shuttering of hundreds of newsrooms, the firing of tens of thousands of journalists and newsroom workers, the near-demise of hard-hitting investigative journalism, and the substitution of frothy infotainment for the hard news that citizenship requires. The truth is that our nation’s civic dialogue has been dumbed-down to the point where one has to doubt our nation’s capacity to face up to our nation’s challenges.

Here too, then, we need big-picture policy changes so that all the enthusiasm and innovation that I saw in Tempe and that I see wherever I go, has a genuine chance to flourish. Here, too, we need a sense of mission, the kind of commitment I talked about with regard to broadband. Indeed, we need it even more in media because media is so basic to self-government and to our democracy.

Where to start? Let’s start with an FCC that is willing to say “No” to the cascading consolidation bazaar that has so deformed our information ecosystem. And then let’s stop tolerating all the ingenious but destructive end-runs that big media is making around the FCC’s ownership caps. Here I am talking about so-called “shared service agreements” and “local marketing arrangements” whereby one station controls another short of outright ownership. These companies tell us they are just sharing resources when, in fact, they are calling all the shots and making all the decisions for their “partners.” It is no different than outright ownership. It makes a mockery of FCC rules and disserves the public interest. Why the FCC tolerates it is beyond me.

Is all this too big an order? Maybe. But to me it’s pretty basic stuff. Democracy 101. We won’t correct our country’s shortfalls until the public interest displaces the special interests as the arbiter of government policy-making. We need a media that reflects and enhances our democracy. And we need the tools of the digital age to fulfill ourselves as individuals and to prosper a nation that has in so many ways dug itself into a deep hole. These are not party issues; they are people issues. They are not just Native American issues; they are American issues.

I am not arguing here that every segment of our population suffers equally. Native Americans are burdened with unique problems that demand special solutions. We need urgently to address these challenges as a national priority. But even as we begin doing that, let us realize that there is only so far we can go without some fundamental reorientation of our overarching telecom and media policy-making. Addressing these fundamental weaknesses is what will put the wind at the backs of all of us, fulfilling “at last” the promise of America for every American.

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