Thursday’s hearing on USF reform in the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs was one of the more compelling hearings on a seemingly arcane subject that I have witnessed. Tribal leaders and smaller telecom companies are worried that the FCC’s migration of legacy support from some smaller telecom carriers as part of larger USF reform could endanger long-term loans and broadband service to native American communities.They looked at the USF funding as a government promise - with which long-term loans were secured from yet another government agency - and part of the repayment of a special debt owed their people, a promise that it looks to them like the government is breaking, to potentially “devastating” effect.
Can you blame them for worrying that the government might not make it a priority to insure tribal telecom interests are protected, or take at face value government promises to that effect.
I have no doubt that the FCC’s intentions are the best here. Tackling USF reform was a hydra-headed challenge no previous commission had the intestinal or political fortitude to tackle, and cutting legacy subsidies is going to leave some scars. But the commission must be very careful not to have that discomfort fall inequitably on tribal telecom. If there was ever a time for the government thumb to be even slightly on the scale - and there almost never is - this would be it.
We hope there was some form of miscommunication, but one witness at the hearing, the Honorable Alfred LaPaz,
Councilman of the Mescalero Apache Tribe of New Mexico, said that he had once been told by an FCC official that because Native Americans were not mentioned in the Communications Act, the FCC did not have to honor the federal government’s “trust relationships” with Native Americans.
I believe that characterization has been brought up before in another venue, but it didn’t sound any better this time around. This FCC has repeatedly stressed the importance of telecom on tribal lands, and Michael Copps, who voted to approve the USF reforms, was nothing if not a passionate advocate for Native American communications rights.
Seeing tribal leaders and telecom companies talking dispiritedly about a complicated and cumbersome government waiver process, not knowing whether they will get the waivers, or if those will be sufficient to keep their companies out of bankruptcy was, frankly, hard to watch.
My advice to the FCC is to make sure that it provides a waiver process that is not too expensive or cumbersome to be of real use, and that it make sure it is providing all the guidance it can. Yes, I know there are budget constraints, but this is one place not to pinch pennies.
Should government loans to tribal telecoms secured by USF funds have been grandfathered? There may be some reason why not, but I can’t come up with a good one at the moment.