Broadband rising on Native agenda

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Native Public Media, a minority consortium incubated within the National Federation of Community Broadcasters for seven years, is striking out on its own, establishing itself as an independent nonprofit and pursuing big new opportunities to expand media access for Native Tribes through broadband and mobile technologies.

With the realignment, announced early this month, the Native group strengthens its ties with the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., its partner for the last several years in research, policy analysis and advocacy to redress huge and historic shortcomings in access to new and older means of communication for Native tribes.

Among the collaboration’s most significant achievements so far is last year’s FCC ruling giving tribes higher priority in competitions for radio channels near Indian lands (Current, Oct. 18, 2010) —  a policy that the FCC looks to expand on broadband and wireless platforms.

The commission intends to unveil new initiatives during its meeting on March 3, which it designated “Native Nations Day.” According to a tentative agenda, the FCC will discuss options for lowering barriers to communications services and expanding wireless Internet on Native lands, and expanding Native radio under the new tribal priority.

By aligning with New America Foundation as its fiscal agent, NPM gains access to a “remarkable think tank and brain trust that’s able to provide the kind of research and data that can make a small company like NPM more effective,” said Loris Taylor, executive director. “We’re a small outfit; the foundation is a huge outfit with experts across every sector — education, health and telecommunications. They are heavyweights in the work that they do.”

NPM’s policy work with the foundation has “raised the commission’s awareness of tribal issues” and how communications policies for the general population inhibit media access for Native people, said John Crigler, a communications attorney who has represented NPM through the law firm Garvey Shubert Barer. NPM will play a role in determining FCC policies on broadband deployment, he said. “In the past, tribal issues have been smothered by much bigger players, and what NPM has done is to make sure the commission thinks this through and invites comments on how these proceedings affect the tribes.”

The FCC agenda for broadband is “huge,” Crigler said, and “the commission is concerned that tribes not get lost in the shuffle.”
Telecom industry business models and the FCC’s regulatory framework have “completely failed to fill the gaps in Native America,” said Sascha Meinrath, director of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative, an expert in community wireless networks who has worked closely with NPM. “We’re working with underrepresented populations whose voices have been underrepresented or expunged from the record as a whole. We want to make sure that these voices don’t get left out of the national broadband plan.”

“It’s one thing to talk about Internet connectivity for the masses, and another to work on what’s not working in today’s environment,” Meinrath said.

“There are a lot of opportunities for the Native media system just over the horizon,” Taylor of NPM said. At the same time, the existing radio service is extremely vulnerable to federal funding cuts proposed for CPB and the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program by Republicans in Congress. “It would be a double whammy for us.” The 34 Native stations now on the air would be hurt by the loss of CPB funding, and the 38 that have construction permits won’t be able to build new stations without PTFP grants.

“Essentially, Indian country will go dark if there is no funding of these programs,” Taylor said. “This will put us back in a dark black hole where we started from.”

CPB directs its aid to radio

The split with NFCB is amicable. The federation will continue providing services to the 34 Native radio stations that it represents, according to Taylor and NFCB President Maxie Jackson. These include training and assistance with governance issues, compliance with FCC regulations and CPB criteria, and fundraising, Taylor said.

“We are excited for them to be moving forward, and proud to have successfully incubated the organization,” Jackson said.
CPB, which backed NPM’s startup as a project within NFCB, agrees with the transition plan as well, according to Bruce Theriault, senior radio v.p. In its next grant to NPM, CPB will direct its funding to providing support for Native radio stations. “We’re carving out the niche of station services,” he said.

Funders supporting NPM’s policy work in broadband include the Ford Foundation, the Media Democracy Fund, the Media and Democracy Coalition, and the Benton Foundation.

This year CPB provided a $300,000 direct grant to NPM and it intends to renew that funding, although the new contract has yet to be finalized, Theriault said. The corporation’s Radio Program Fund also aids the producers of nationally distributed programming, such as Native Voice One and the contemporary music program UnderCurrents.

NPM “is strong, healthy and robust, and that makes it a good time to move into next phase of our development,” Taylor said. Its first seven years were marked by “huge accomplishments,” Taylor said. Not only did NPM influence the FCC’s tribal priority policy, but the commission also beefed up its staffing by establishing an Office of Native Affairs and Policy. NPM also helped Native groups secure construction permits for 38 new stations when the FCC resumed a long-stalled 2007 licensing proceeding for new noncommercial educational radio stations. As these stations come online, they have the potential to more than double the field of tribal community outlets.

NPM’s focus on broadband policy recognizes a historic opportunity to expand media access to Native people on Indian reservations, where basic telecommunication systems may be unavailable or unaffordable. “We’re the poster children of technological disadvantage,” Taylor said. “Most people refer to radio as being a ‘legacy technology,’” but on reservations it can be the only means of notifying emergency responders or issuing warnings of flood conditions.

Of the 565 Native nations recognized by the federal government, only 34 now operate radio stations, Taylor said. “Broadband penetration is less than 10 percent in Indian country.”  Less than 70 percent of households have phone service, and those on some reservations have no access to 911 emergency assistance. “We have to think about how this affects people on the ground.”

There’s still an important role for radio to play in the Native media landscape, but not every tribal community can expect to build its own radio station, according to Taylor and other Native leaders.

As the country runs out of available FM channels, even in rural areas, “we have to look to other platforms,” Taylor said. NPM’s recent research with the New America Foundation found that adoption of handheld devices is highest among young Native Americans, of all major U.S. ethnic populations, so NPM will look for ways to provide information to them via mobile platforms.

Sue Matters, g.m. of KWSO in Warm Springs, Ore., and chair of the NPM Board, described radio stations as a great communication medium for tribes, especially for their immediacy and effectiveness as sources of community information. But new platforms are especially promising because they “expand the ways in which Native people can express themselves and engage with each other.”

As an independent nonprofit, NPM will be able to advocate more effectively for access to broadband and wireless technologies and to help tribes make effective use of them, Matters said.  “We’ll be working with tribal stations on how to advocate within their own communities, and we’ll be able to get more Native voices to tell their stories – not just on the radio but in all kinds of different forms,” Matters said. “If there are more platforms for stories to be told, it could be really empowering.”

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Copyright 2011 American University


FCC permits in hand for 29 new Native American stations — which can go on the air if the applicants can afford to build them. November 2008.

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