Before the

NATIONAL TELECOMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION ADMINISTRATION

Room 4713 HCHB, 1401 Constitution Ave., NW,

Washington, D.C. 20230

 

 

In the Matter of                                                )

                                                                        )

Request for Comments on Deployment of            )                       Docket No. 011109273-1273-01

Broadband Networks and Advanced                     )

Telecommunications                                         )

 

 

COMMENTS

of

Gila River Telecommunications, Inc.

 

I.                   Introduction

Gila River Telecommunications, Inc. hereby submits these comments in response to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) inquiry in the above-captioned proceeding.[1]  Gila River Telecommunications, Inc. (GRTI) was established on July 6, 1988 for the purpose of providing the Gila River Indian Community with telephone service and other telecommunications services.  GRTI currently has over 3,600 lines, including business, residence, and private line circuits.  Approximately 48% of these are business lines.  The state-of-the-art telecommunications system currently consists of 8 central offices equipped with Nortel DMS10 digital switching equipment.  Fiber optic cable connects all central offices, in addition to ten Digital Loop Carrier concentrator units.  The total system consists of over 117 miles of fiber optic cable and 410 miles of buried copper cable.  GRTI  is also a 25% owner of the Gila River Cellular General Partnership, serving the Rural Service Area 5 in Arizona.  The service area includes a portion of the Interstate 10 corridor between Phoenix and Tucson, as well as all of Pinal and Gila counties.

GRTI is a rural telephone company, as defined in 47 U.S.C. § 153(37).  GRTI provides a wide variety of telecommunications services in sparsely populated, remote, high-cost communities where the unemployment rate is more than three times the national average, median household income is below the federal poverty threshold and educational attainment is below the national average.  These factors combine to create a market that poses formidable challenges to GRTI’s ability to provide basic phone service to the Gila River Indian Community without the assistance of Universal Service and federal initiatives designed to alleviate economic and social disadvantages specific to Indian Country, in general, and the Gila River Indian community in particular.

These chronic economic and social disadvantages make the task of deploying broadband services extremely difficult, especially in terms of gaining returns of initial investments.  As of the date of this filing, GRTI has yet to deploy broadband services to households and small businesses.  However, recent surveys performed by GRTI reveal that the demand for such services is high.[2]  Therefore, GRTI  intends to deploy broadband to a select number communities in FY2002.  In this regard, additional federal funding mechanisms and initiatives are needed to further alleviate economic and social disadvantages specific to Indian Country.  Specifically, GRTI urges NTIA to develop mechanisms and initiatives that will alleviate the financial burden of initial “last mile” investments by providing a means of gaining returns on its initial investments.  GRTI also urges NTIA to develop initiatives that support community-beneficial broadband services and applications necessary for raising public awareness regarding the social, cultural, economic and educational benefits of broadband.  GRTI believes that such federal initiatives are crucial for raising public demand and serving as a focus for community demand-pull strategies designed to expedite broadband deployment.   

Therefore, GRTI urges NTIA to:

1)      Update the federal definition of broadband services from a symmetrical 200 Kbps to a symmetrical 8 Mbps to keep pace with emerging bandwidth-intensive telemedicine, education, cultural preservation and business applications requiring high resolution video;

2)      Expand existing federal initiatives, such as NTIA’s TOP program, and advocate for the development of additional federal initiatives, such as the Native American Telecommunications Improvement and Value Enhancement Act[3], that will provide universal access to broadband services on tribal lands and promote tribal self determination and tribal sovereignty;

3)      Alter current federal initiatives and develop future federal initiatives so that they DO NOT subsidize competition in rural markets—served by tribal telecommunications companies—that are not capable of supporting more than one local exchange carrier.[4]

 

II.         How should broadband services be defined? Please discuss (1) what criteria should be used to determine whether a facility or service has sufficient transmission capacity to be classified as "broadband;" (2) how the definition should evolve over time; and (3) the policy implications of how the term is defined.

 

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines broadband as: the capability of supporting at least 200 kilobits (Kbps) in the consumer’s connection to the network (“last mile”), both from the provider to the consumer (downstream) and from the consumer to the provider (upstream)[5].  Yet, many international standards organizations define broadband services as capable of transmitting at least 1.5 or 2 million bits of information every second – or megabits per second (Mbps).[6]  For instance, Canada, the global leader in broadband deployment defines broadband as symmetrical 2Mbps.[7]  However, it is clear that the term "broadband" is not universally applied and ranges from a low of 200 thousand bits per second (Kbps) to as high as 30 Mbps.  Therefore, GRTI urges NTIA to update the federal definition of broadband services from a symmetrical 200 Kbps to a symmetrical 8 Mbps to keep pace with emerging bandwidth intensive telemedicine, education, cultural preservation and business applications requiring high resolution video.[8] 

Furthermore, new and emerging applications such as peer-to-peer file interactions and HDTV will increase

individual user demand for symmetric bandwidth well beyond the 8Mbps range.  Over the last two decades, the development of telecommunications and information technology markets have repeatedly proven that what is considered fast today may be considered slow in six months or one year as a result of synergistic changes in technology, applications and user requirements.  Therefore, GRTI urges NTIA to review the federal definition of broadband periodically so that it can evolve over time as new technologies and applications are introduced (i.e., HDTV, which requires 20 Mbps).  The policy implications for increasing the current definition of broadband and encouraging its evolution over time are significant, especially in the context of future E-Rate funding for schools and libraries and USDA RUS distance learning and telemedicine funding for schools and healthcare facilities.  GRTI believes that it is critical to the future potential of rural communities on tribal lands that current federal initiatives support the build out of infrastructure capable of supporting bandwidth-intensive applications necessary for healthcare, education, cultural preservation and economic development in the very near future.

 

III.             Should government adopt as a goal "access for all" to broadband service? What would be the costs of such a goal? What policy initiatives, if any, should be considered to achieve that goal? Are there areas or persons that are unlikely to be served through marketplace forces?

 

GRTI urges NTIA to adopt universal access to broadband on tribal lands as a government goal.  Universal access to broadband on tribal lands is critical to advancement of tribal self-determination, self-sufficiency, economic development, education, healthcare and cultural preservation.  Universal access to broadband  will allow tribes to technologically leapfrog over many of the well-documented challenges and barriers to self-determination and self-sufficiency caused by continued economic, political and social exclusion from mainstream America. Universal access to broadband in Indian Country will provide tribal governments with the necessary tools to streamline the management of information and provide for the delivery of basic social services in a much more efficient and timely manner.  Furthermore, universal access to broadband on tribal lands is essential to the development of business, industry, and trade, as well as distance learning, telemedicine, and telecommuting.  The rate of deployment therefore has implications for the welfare of American Indians and the economic development of Indian Country.[9]  This is particularly true in the most rural portions of Indian Country, where people stand to benefit greatly from high-speed, distance-defying connections to external markets and employment opportunities, urban medical centers, large universities offering specialty courses, and similar distant resources.[10]

 However, three critical barriers are currently impeding the deployment of broadband networks in Indian Country: 1) the lack of tribally-held capital to invest in building out the necessary infrastructure; 2) the lack of a favorable economic environment and a subsequent business case to attract outside investment to build out necessary infrastructure; and 3) the lack of available funds to develop community technology plans—in fact, only about 17%  of tribal governments have developed technology plans.[11]

In light of the above mentioned impediments, GRTI believes that the following legislation is necessary to expedite the  build out of broadband networks in Indian Country:

·        GRTI urges Congress to pass and the President to sign the Native American Telecommunications Improvement and Value Enhancement Act (NATIVE Act, S. 761), which would create a $1 billion revolving loan fund for tribal cooperatives or tribal entities that have partnered with a telecommunications carrier to create a wireline or wireless telecommunications infrastructure.  The NATIVE Act also would establish a grant program to provide matching grants to tribes to conduct feasibility studies for tribal telecommunications projects.  Both the revolving loan and grant program would expire when 94% of households on tribal lands have telephone service, or ten years after the date the first loan is made, whichever comes first.

·        GRTI urges Congress to pass and the President to sign the Community Telecommunications planning Act, S. 1056.  The act would provide $60 million dollars in FY 2002 for communities to build telecommunications infrastructure.  Tribes would be eligible to apply for this grant.  Priority funding would go to rural and underserved areas.

GRTI encourages continued funding for, as well as the additional development of, federal initiatives that provide for public access to broadband services, such as pilot projects that employ broadband technologies for the betterment of communities—such as e-government, distance learning and telemedicine applications, community technology centers, and small business development centers.  GRTI believes that federal initiatives that support community-beneficial broadband services and applications are necessary for raising public awareness regarding the social, cultural, economic and educational benefits of broadband.  To this end, such federal initiatives are crucial for raising public demand and serving as a focus for community demand-pull strategies designed to expedite broadband deployment. 

Therefore, GRTI believes that continued and appropriately increased funding for the following federal initiatives are necessary to expedite the  build out of broadband networks in Indian Country:

·        NTIA Technology Opportunities Program

·        Department of Education Community Technology Center Program

·        Small Business Administration Small Business Development Center Program

·        United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Utility Service (RUS) loans and grants programs[12]

·        Distance Learning and Telemedicine Loan and Grant Program

·        Local Dial-Up Internet Grant Program

·        Broadband Telecommunications Services in Rural America Loan Fund

·        RUS Telephone Bank

GRTI also believes that additional federal initiatives should be established to encourage the development of innovative content and services, particularly for learning, health, government, culture, entertainment, community building and e-business.  The availability of such content is crucial for growing consumer demand because it makes the communications medium relevant and meaningful to their lives—this is especially when such content meets the cultural needs of a particular community.[13]  Development of this content should be supported through incentives and direct funding as appropriate, through expanding the mandate of existing programs to incorporate funding for broadband content or by creating new programs. On-line content and services should:

·        Reflect the social, economic, and cultural perspectives of American Indian tribal members

·        Respond to significant special needs of users

·        Be user-centered and user-friendly

·        Be available in both English and tribal languages.[14]

 

IV.              Do the interconnection, unbundling, and resale requirements of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 reduce incumbent local exchange carriers' (ILECs') incentives to invest in broadband facilities and services?

GRTI believes that it is critical for the federal government to address competition issues, in a manner consistent to the 1996 Telecommunications Act – where tribally owned telecommunications companies exist – to protect the investments of tribal telecommunications companies and to ensure that the best interests of the affected communities are served.  Specifically, GRTI is concerned about federal regulatory mechanisms that subsidize competition in market areas that are incapable of supporting more than one local exchange carrier. Currently, markets served by tribal telecommunications companies, which are carriers of last resort, are unable to support natural competition (i.e., unsubsidized competition).

GRTI believes that tribal telecommunications companies, such as GRTI, have proven to be critical in providing the hard-to-reach tribal communities in which they serve with access to telecommunications services and access to the Internet.  And in the coming years, tribal telecommunications companies will prove to be critical in providing these same communities with access to broadband.  Furthermore, tribal telecommunications companies, such as GRTI, ought to be viewed by the federal government—as they are viewed by the Indian Nations and tribal communities they serve—as being necessary for meeting basic social needs and necessary for facilitating tribal economic development.  In this regard, GRTI believes that tribal telecommunications companies should be viewed as essential and necessary enterprises for facilitating tribal self-determination and self-sufficiency, as well as, the strengthening of tribal sovereignty.  Therefore, GRTI believes that federal regulatory mechanisms and initiatives that DO NOT subsidize competition in markets served by tribal telecommunications companies, where such markets are incapable of supporting natural competition (i.e., unsubsidized competition), will support the best interests of the affected tribal communities, and will also support the best interests of Indian Nations attempting to promote self-determination, self-sufficiency and strengthen tribal sovereignty.   

GRTI believes that current public policy threatens broadband deployment as a result of the competing goals of furthering universal service and promoting competition – that of competition and universal access.  Specifically, GRTI is concerned that artificially induced competition in rural areas serves to undermine the already weak business case for broadband deployment.[15]  Artificially induced competition threatens the revenue base for tribal carriers but does not reduce the investments required to provide service.  In addition, since tribal carriers continue to have an obligation as the carrier of last resort they must continue to place and maintain the telephone plant necessary to meet this obligation.[16]  As a result, competition in rural areas and deployment of advanced services are in conflict. For example, some of the Rural Task Force’s recommendations exacerbate this conflict by freezing universal service funding for incumbent carriers when competitive entry occurs, by making all universal service funds (USF) fully portable to competitive eligible telecommunications carriers (CETCs), by limiting the amount of USF available to rural carriers that acquire rural exchanges from larger carriers, and by limiting the overall size of the High Cost Fund available for rural infrastructure investment.[17]  Such requirements could prove to be financially disastrous for tribal carriers serving markets that are unable to support competition.

GRTI encourages the development of federal policies that permit competition without subsidizing or artificially creating it.  GRTI encourages the development of federal policies that provide adequate support for areas that do not have sufficient demand to attract new entrants so that companies that have excelled in serving rural communities in the past will have sufficient access to the support they need to continue to provide services as carriers of last resort.  In this way, rural competition can act to promote rural consumer interests without threatening the viability of the carriers on which rural communities (increasingly) depend.[18]

            If competition is to be subsidized in rural areas, then the results are likely to be increased need for support, diminished levels of service, or both.[19]

            In addition, GRTI strongly encourages the development of federal policies that provide an accelerated depreciation schedule for broadband network upgrades.  Technology breakthroughs cause equipment to become obsolete quickly.[20]  Tribal carriers must have confidence that they will be permitted to recover their capital investments in order to encourage further broadband investment without hesitation.

 

V.                 Conclusion

In regards to federal efforts to deploy broadband on tribal lands, GRTI urges NTIA to: 1) update the federal definition of broadband services from a symmetrical 200 Kbps to a symmetrical 8 Mbps to keep pace with emerging bandwidth intensive telemedicine, education, cultural preservation and business applications requiring high resolution video; 2) expand existing federal initiatives, such as the RUS Broadband and NTIA TOP programs, and develop additional federal initiatives, such as the Native American Telecommunications Improvement and Value Enhancement Act, that will provide universal access to broadband services on tribal lands and promote tribal self determination and tribal sovereignty; and 3) alter current federal regulatory mechanisms and develop future federal initiatives so that they DO NOT subsidize competition in rural markets that are not capable of supporting more than one local exchange carrier.

 

 

Respectfully submitted,

 

GILA RIVER TELECOMMUNICATIONS, INC.

 

                                                            By: /s/ Kade L. Twist

                                                                        Kade L. Twist                                   

                                                                        480.921.1279

                                                                        949 S. Maple Ave.

                                                                        Tempe, AZ. 85281



[1] Request for Comments on Deployment of Broadband Networks and Advanced Telecommunications, Docket No. 011109273-1273-01.

 

[2] GRTI surveys reveal a robust residential and small business demand for broadband services. In particular, demand for broadband among small business owners is 75%.

[3] Native American Telecommunications Improvement and Value Enhancement Act (NATIVE Act, S. 761) would create a $1 billion revolving loan fund for tribal cooperatives or tribal entities that have partnered with a telecommunications carrier to create a wireline or wireless telecommunications infrastructure. The NATIVE Act also would establish a grant program to provide matching grants to tribes to conduct feasibility studies for tribal telecommunications projects.  Both the revolving loan and grant program would expire when 94% of households on tribal lands have telephone service, or ten years after the date the first loan is made, whichever comes first.

[4] It is paramount to note here that tribal telecommunications companies, such as GRTI, are carriers of last resort and have proven to be critical in providing the hard-to-reach tribal communities in which they serve with access to telecommunications services and access to the Internet. Therefore, tribal telecommunications companies, such as GRTI, are viewed by the Indian Nations and tribal communities they serve as being necessary for meeting basic social needs and necessary for facilitating tribal economic development. In this regard, tribal telecommunications companies are viewed as essential and necessary enterprises for the ongoing development of  tribal self-determination and the strengthening of tribal sovereignty. 

[5] See Broadband Reporting Order, supra note 8, at ¶ 22 (explaining that “full broadband” is synonymous with the term “advanced telecommunications capability,” i.e., as having the capability of supporting, in both downstream and upstream directions, a speed in excess of 200 Kbps in the “last mile.”).

[6] National Broadband Task Force Report [Canada], The New National Dream: Networking the Nation for Broadband Access, 2001.

[7] Ibid.

[8] According to GRTI Plant Operations Manager Derek E. White, 8Mbps is required for high quality video applications used for telemedicine.

[9] National Telecommunications and Information Administration and Rural Utilities Service, Advanced Telecommunications in Rural America: The Challenge of Bringing Broadband Service to All Americans, April 2000.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Economic Development Administration,  Assessment of Technology Infrastructure in Native Communities, 1999.

[12] United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Utility Service (RUS) loans and grants programs have been essential to the establishment, development and evolution of all tribal telecommunications companies. Without the RUS Telephone Bank and other RUS programs, tribal telecommunications companies would not have the means to exist. Therefore, it cannot be overstated how important it is, for both tribal telecommunications companies and the tribal communities they serve, that these RUS programs are adequately supported and appropriately funded.

[13] The Children’s Partnership, Online Content for Low-Income and Underserved Americans: The Digital Divide’s New Frontier, 2000.

[14] National Broadband Task Force Report [Canada], The New National Dream: Networking the Nation for Broadband Access, 2001.

[15] Dale Lehman, NTCA White Paper Series, The cost of Competition, 2000.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Comments of OPASTCO, Inquiry Concerning the Deployment of Advanced Telecommunications Capability to All Americans, CC Docket No. 98-146.