FCC highlights 'national disgrace': Connectivity gap for Native Americans

"Modern telecommunications and ubiquitous media are strangers in much of Indian country," he said. It's a "national disgrace."

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski cited the story of two Native American men whose car broke down on a reservation during a storm. Even though they had cell phones, they froze to death in their vehicle because they couldn't get a signal. 

The broadband adoption rate is as low as 5 percent in some parts of Indian country, according to some estimates, Republican Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker said. She called that "staggering."

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Even traditional phone service is hardly ubiquitous in Tribal lands. The service extends to only 68 percent of households, compared to a national rate of 98 percent, according to Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn.

Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell cited the dearth of Native American-owned radio stations. "I was startled to learn that 0.3 percent of the 13,000 radio facilities in this country belong to recognized Tribes," he said. 

The agency unanimously passed three items aimed at improving communications services for Native Americans. 

That included new efforts to find policies promoting wireless on tribal lands and expediting broadband deployment. A third item aims to make it easier for radio stations to operate in tribal areas.