When Hastiin Yazhi started a new woodworking business, he knew he would have to market it online. That sounds easy enough, but he lives on lands in northern New Mexico belonging to the Navajo Nation, which he describes having “lots of mesas and plateaus.” Because of the terrain, and the very rural setting, Yazhi lacks landline, cell, and internet service.
The former IT worker invested in a 4G booster and an antenna mounted on his TV antenna so he could get online and make calls. He was online, and could show his work to the world, but it was expensive. For a time, Yazhi was spending $400 to $600 monthly for the increased data. As for phone calls, with no firms willing to run landlines out to these remote areas and cell towers few and far between, Yazhi at one time resorted to a common tactic on reservations: “I used to drive my Jeep up to the top of a mesa so I could make calls,” he said.
Like many Native Americans, Yazhi doesn’t have access to the easy, affordable communications technology most people take for granted. And now the federal government is going to make it even more difficult for people like him to be connected to the wider world. In fact, most Native Americans who were counting on the Federal Communications Commission to continue with policies that many tribal communities were counting on to bring more service to far-flung tribal lands may see even cell service reduced.
On Thursday, the agency’s commissioners voted 3-2 (split on party lines between the three Republicans and two Democrats) to make deep cuts to the Lifeline Program, which provides discounted telephone and internet service to low-income Americans, including many Native Americans. Begun in the Reagan administration, it gives a discount of up to about $9 a month to Americans who make less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level. Although it doesn’t sound like much, it means that some carriers simply provide the service at no charge. And, tribal members receive an even deeper discount, up to $34 a month, to obtain essential phone service or to provide basic internet connectivity. For the poor, that matters a lot.
The discounts also serve another purpose—they provide revenues for telephone and internet service providers who normally wouldn’t enter certain rural markets. “Phone and internet service providers don’t see any profit potential out here,” said Yazhi from his home west of the tiny community of Cuba, New Mexico. But the companies receive the Lifeline discounts as reimbursements, ensuring a steady stream of income and a return on their investment.
Though it received less attention than another Thursday 3-2 FCC vote that scrapped rules intended to prevent media companies from forming monopolies, the Lifeline decision will make many people’s lives demonstrably harder. The ruling will cut off Indians not living in “rural tribal lands” from receiving an enhanced $25 monthly discount, bar cellphone resellers from offering the service, and places a cap on Lifeline services to all low-income Americans. After the vote, Native Americans who need a phone to call 9-1-1, apply for work, or talk with health care providers or teachers will have a much more difficult time obtaining sometimes life-saving telephone service.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has on numerous occasions noted that the Lifeline service is rife with fraud, an assessment partially borne out by a Government Accountability Office report in July 2017. The agency surveyed 3.5 million households of the 12.5 million who are in the program, and couldn’t verify 36 percent of the enrollees qualified.
But Teresa Hopkins, the executive director of the Navajo Nation Telecommunications Regulatory Commission, told me that the GAO report shouldn’t be used as an excuse to take resources away from Native Americans who badly need them. “Fraud happens in urban areas, not here on the reservation,” Hopkins said. She also noted that the FCC’s proposal to use third-party verification to root out potential fraud will be difficult on the sprawling Navajo reservation, which is the size of West Virginia and spans parts of three states. “We use Navajo speakers to verify our enrollees,” many of whom have limited—or no—English proficiency, Hopkins said. “But the FCC wants to bring in people from outside the community. Our elders won’t know who they are and will likely just hang up on them, and be disqualified from service.”
FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn believes the move is simply a cost-cutting measure. “Even when the Commission said that additional Lifeline money would have the effect of infrastructure deployment in the context of tribal Lifeline, it was said that the primary goal is to reduce the monthly cost of service,” Clyburn said during the hearing as she cast her “no” vote. “Most disheartening, however, is the immediate impact this proposal will have on tribal lands,” she said. “And all of this is occurring during Native American Heritage Month.”
The Universal Service Administrative Company, the firm that administers Lifeline and other programs designed to meet the goal of universal service for the FCC, plans on offering customers an online option for the periodic requalification required by the feds. But Hopkins is leery. “Our reservation is so large that people’s physical addresses sometimes don’t match their mailing addresses,” she said. “We have people with a physical address in New Mexico and a mailing address in Arizona. Also, many of our rural tribal members only have a post office box,” which the online service is liable to reject because it requires a street address. And that spells trouble for the 65,000-plus families—about 225,000 people— who Hopkins said rely on Lifeline for their phone service, including some 85 percent of all Navajo families residing on the reservation.
And, since most Navajos don’t have internet service, just logging on to the site will mean driving to a library or chapter house (the equivalent of a county courthouse), and uploading the required documents requires a scanner.
The Navajo Nation is just one of the tribes across the US affected by the changes.
Before the hearing, the National Congress of American Indians, the US’s largest Native rights advocacy group, issued a statement opposing the action. “Lifeline was always intended to be a telephone service affordability program, and this proposed action will make telephone service more expensive for people living on highly populated Tribal Lands,” the statement said. “This proposed action will result in widening the Digital Divide that persists in Indian Country.” NCAI also asked the FCC to “engage in meaningful consultation with Tribal Nations before adopting rules that will directly impact Tribal Nations and their citizens.”
During Thursday’s meeting, Pai said he had conducted three meetings with Western tribes, including the Navajo Nation, and with Native Hawaiian communities. Hopkins says that just meeting with elected officials didn’t give him the real story. “They could have done more with tribal consultation,” she told me. “Washington needs to go to the real rural communities and make an effort to meet with those very rural residents for whom phone service is a life-or-death situation.”
Pai also singled out two cities—Reno, Nevada, and Tulsa, Oklahoma—in which he said some 97.5 percent of all residents had access to enhanced communications and broadband internet service. Both those metropolitan areas would be ineligible for the extra discounts for tribal members.
However, the original land base of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony is home to 150 households on 27 acres just east of downtown Reno, and more than 43,000 Native people call Tulsa, which was founded by members of the Muscogee Creek Nation in about 1830, home. The Reno tribe, which also includes a community north of the city, has a 36.8 percent family poverty rate, according to the US Census.
Although the FCC believes the move will spark more telecommunications infrastructure development in these remote areas, it’s not likely to happen soon, according to at least one expert. “Large reservations are challenged to provide cell service,” Edward J. Hermes, an attorney at Phoenix law firm Quarles and Brady, told me. Hopkins said that rural providers will most likely have to pull out of reservations if they can’t recoup their investments—some $25 million in Navajo alone—in cellular and internet services, since the FCC also enacted a new $280 million cap on the program. This could also lead to fewer customers once the cap is reached.
Hopkins’s department plans several meetings to take a proactive response to the dilemma. She plans to talk to phone and internet providers and resellers, other Navajo Nation departments that she hopes can help tribal members with verification for further enrollment in the Lifeline program, and with Universal Service Administrative Company officials to discuss a possible compromise on verification for Navajos who need the service.
“I heard from one young Navajo woman in New Mexico that, without her Lifeline phone, and without the Lifeline program, her community would really be living in the 1800s,” Clyburn said.
Hopkins said that the situation would be even worse than that: “What they’re going to do is widen the digital divide,” she said. “We’ve gone backward.”
That lack of progress is going to hurt people like Hastiin Yazhi. “I know how hard it is to run a business without the internet or a phone,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Mignon Clyburn's name in one instance.