GAO: Data needed on American Indian Internet use

Only 69 percent of American Indian households on tribal lands in the continental United States have telephones, far below the national average. But a new report by the Government Accountability Office said there’s been no new data on the subject since 2000 and absolutely no information about how many subscribe to the Internet.

“Without current subscribership data, it is difficult to assess progress or the impact of federal programs to improve telecommunications on tribal lands,” according to the report, which was released last week.

GAO investigators identified the Federal Communications Commission as the “best positioned” organization to determine what additional telecommunication services data needs to be collected. But while FCC officials, in responding to the report, agreed that more information is needed, they argued other agencies are better suited to determine those economic and demographic data needs, the report states.

The GAO report indicated Congress should consider giving the FCC the responsibility to determine what data is needed and how it should be collected and provide a report.

GAO based the most current telephone subscribership rate for tribal households in the lower 48 states and Alaska -- Hawaii does not have federally recognized tribes -- on the 2000 decennial census. The lower 48 states have an average rate of 69 percent, while American Indian households in Alaskan native villages have a rate of 87 percent. While this shows some progress since the 1990 census, the rates lag the 97.6 percent national average, according to the report.

The Census Bureau is working on a new survey to provide more frequent data, but it will take time to produce findings and will not be available until 2010. The bureau does not collect information on the rate of Internet subscribership and has not included such a question in the new survey because it is not mandated by law, the report states.

In the meantime, tribes are tapping into various federal grant programs, loans and other types of assistance, conducting long-range planning and establishing private-sector partnerships to improve telephone and Internet service, including encouraging wireless providers to compete with traditional telecommunications companies, the report states.

Tribes must overcome several obstacles to improving such service on their lands, including the “rural, rugged terrain,” which can increase the cost of implementing telecommunications infrastructure, the report states. Tribes also have limited financial means, a shortage of technical expertise among members and difficulty obtaining rights-of-way to deploy telecommunications equipment across their lands, the report states.

On the latter issue, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which approves actions including rights-of-way on Indian lands, is issuing an updated “Rights-of-Way Handbook” in March to include advanced telecommunications infrastructure, according to the GAO report. Several tribes are also trying to streamline the process.

The report also said lawmakers should consider amending the Communications Act of 1934 to allow tribal libraries to be eligible for federal funds so they can get Internet access. Currently, several tribal libraries are barred from such funds because of certain federal criteria.

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