• Standing Rock Telecommunications Wins Federal Funding Support for Tribally Owned Wireless Network
  • July 1, 2011 | Author: Douglas G. Bonner
  • Law Firm: SNR Denton
  • In a June 21, 2011 Order on Reconsideration, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) designated Standing Rock Telecommunications, Inc. (Standing Rock), a tribally owned wireless carrier, as a competitive eligible telecommunications carrier (ETC) throughout its entire 4,000-square-mile Reservation, effective immediately ("FCC Order"). In so doing, the full Commission broadened an earlier ETC designation conferred by the Wireline Competition Bureau (WCB) in August 2010 ("Bureau Order") to include making Standing Rock eligible to receive federal high-cost universal service support (USF) in partial wire centers so that it can provide wireless service to all residents within the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Reservation, which straddles the border between North Dakota and South Dakota. SNR Denton has represented Standing Rock in this matter since Standing Rock filed its initial petition for designation as an ETC with the FCC in December 2009.

    This decision means that Standing Rock will receive federal high-cost support to provide wireless service to Tribal residents throughout the Reservation.

    On an issue that the FCC recognized as one of first impression, the FCC Order strongly supports deployment of critical communications infrastructure in underserved Tribal lands by granting ETC designation to Standing Rock to provide wireless service throughout the entire Standing Rock Reservation, without regard to wire center boundaries or partial wire centers. Recognizing that all Tribal residents reside within a "sovereign community" and that, because Standing Rock "proposes to serve its entire community," including peripheral areas that may be more sparsely populated, the FCC concluded that it is in the public interest to designate Standing Rock as an ETC on the "entire Reservation," and to deviate from the "general requirement that competitive ETCs serve entire rural wire centers." The Commission action was predicated on the historical federal trust and government-to-government relationship that it shares with federally recognized Tribes, as well as its commitment to promote the availability of affordable communications services to underserved consumers, many of whom reside today on Tribal lands.

    The federal USF support that will result from this FCC action will help address historically unreliable and unaffordable telecommunications service options on the Reservation. The FCC determined that its decision will "empower the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe" to own and operate its own wireless network infrastructure, which provides residents with essential emergency 911 services and, as the FCC found, will help to promote local economic development, preserve Tribal language and culture, and facilitate educational opportunities through distance learning programs.

    On another important issue, in response to Standing Rock's petition for reconsideration of the Bureau Order requiring North Dakota state commission consent to a redefinition of the rural service area of the rural telephone company wire centers in which Standing Rock was designated an ETC, the Commission held that redefinition of a rural telephone company service area is "unnecessary" when the ETC is designated throughout the entire Reservation, including all rural telephone company service areas that lie within the FCC's maximum jurisdictional authority. This was a critical issue to Standing Rock because, under the terms of the Bureau Order, USF support funds would not be paid in any rural telephone company service areas (where the vast majority of Standing Rock residents reside) unless and until the North Dakota state commission consented to the FCC's service area redefinition. And the full Commission declined to adopt an "across-the-board rule regarding when a state commission has jurisdiction over a carrier -- Tribal or otherwise -- that seeks to serve residents of Tribal lands." Nevertheless, unlike the earlier Bureau Order, because the full Commission granted Standing Rock's ETC Petition and extended the ETC designation of Standing Rock as a competitive ETC throughout the entire Reservation, this enabled the Commission to avoid the typical requirement to redefine rural telephone company service areas as unnecessary in these circumstances. Accordingly, because the Commission found that no redefinition is required where ETC designation is granted for the entire geographic limits of a Reservation, it concluded that no statutory state commission consent is needed before Standing Rock's ETC designation takes effect.