ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Sixty-three percent of all Americans have broadband Internet connections, but the Federal Communications Commission estimates that fewer than 10 percent of Native Americans have high-speed Internet. So today, the FCC announced the appointment of a special liaison to oversee efforts to bring broadband to Indian country.
NPR's Laura Sydell visited one remote part of Northern California, where an Indian community is struggling for even the most basic services.
LAURA SYDELL: Many tribal communities around the United States are in remote rural areas. Humboldt County, California, is home to several tribes, among them the Karuk. In the small community of Orleans, they make up a quarter of the population of just under 1,000 people. Here, says the tribe's IT officer Chris Kleeman, they even have a hard time getting phone service.
Mr. CHRIS KLEEMAN (IT Officer, Karuk Tribe): We lose our telephones, regular telephones, including 911, hundreds of times each year. In the month of July last year, we lost it approximately 250 times.
SYDELL: And when the lines go down, they can be down for hours. Bari Talley lives in Orleans, and Roberta Kurgiliatti works for the volunteer fire department.
Ms. ROBERT KURGILIATTI: We had two major fires. One of them was Bari's home that burned to the ground because the phone system didn't work. They couldn't call.
Ms. BARI TALLEY: And I was burnt pretty badly, and my kids were traumatized. And it was pretty harsh. And I was trying to get a hold of my husband and couldn't get a hold of him. And poor guy had to drive up to the house when it was just flattened.
SYDELL: There are other stories here about fires, car accidents, medical emergencies where residents couldn't reach help. Orleans is served by Verizon. Karuk IT officer Kleeman says he's called the company.
Mr. KLEEMAN: And they don't even know what I'm talking about. Oh, you need to go to this department. Please hold. And you get transferred and transferred and transferred, and eventually you're talking to people that don't even live in the same area and don't understand when you say that it is 50 miles to go to a store.
SYDELL: More than 30 percent of the people in Orleans live below the poverty level, according to the California Center for Rural Policy. Many move away because they can't find work or build businesses because there's no connectivity. But Bari Talley says she shouldn't be forced to leave.
Ms. TALLEY: My familys lived out here for thousands and thousands of years. This is our home, and just because we live out here doesn't mean we deserve less.
SYDELL: Just a few miles down the road, the county of Siskiyou is connected. Cabot Winery used to have its offices in Orleans, but winery founder Kimberly Cabot says she was having a hard time growing the business. Simple tasks like searching for the right sized bottles took ages on dial-up. So she moved Cabot's offices to Siskiyou County, where the winery gets reliable phone service and high-speed Internet for $50 a month.
Ms. KIMBERLY CABOT (Founder, Cabot Winery): It's made a huge difference because from this far out, we can't have a tasting room, not that many people driving by and stopping in. So it makes all the sense for - our storefront is on the Internet.
SYDELL: Small businesses and consumers aren't the only ones pushing for change. Sisqtel, which is an old phone provider with a long history in Siskiyou County, tried to purchase the rights to build out phone and Internet service to Orleans. But a Sisqtel spokesperson says Verizon won't sell. Verizon declined to be interviewed for this story.
California does gives phone companies like Verizon monopolies in rural parts of the state to entice them to build out in what are considered low-profit areas, but the cost of building compared to the return is one of the reasons Native American communities have a long history of neglect when it comes to basic infrastructure.
To help change that, at least for broadband, the FCC today announced the appointment of Geoffrey Blackwell to lead initiatives on Native American affairs. Unfortunately, he says, the situation in Orleans is typical.
Mr. GEOFFREY BLACKWELL: We're not just talking about rural America. We're talking about remote America. We're talking about places that, by their design, where tribes were placed, didn't necessarily benefit from certain eras of federal infrastructure development like the Eisenhower interstate system.
SYDELL: Blackwell's appointment is part of the FCC's National Broadband Plan. The plan emphasizes rural connectivity and in particular the more than 1.4 million American Indians who live in remote areas. The FCC has asked Congress to set aside funding to help with this part of the plan.
The Karuk Tribe has used the limited federal funds already available to connect a local health clinic, the public schools and a community center.
On a weekday afternoon, the computer lab is filled with local school kids doing research and playing games. Bari Talley sees her kids using Google Earth, but she has to tell them to get off.
Ms. TALLEY: Because it uses up too much bandwidth, and then they aren't able to access stuff at the clinic.
SYDELL: The bandwidth is limited because access is provided by two special land lines that cost the tribe $1,300 a month. Roberta Kurgiliatti says the community needs more.
Ms. KURGILIATTI: FCC's not going to solve our problems. We're going to solve our problems. But we need to have the opportunities. We need to have that chance.
SYDELL: Even if it's just a chance to call the fire department when your house is burning down.
Laura Sydell, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.