PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — A business that specializes in providing wireless telephone service to Native American reservations so that it can collect federal subsidies will be allowed to come into South Dakota.
The state Public Utilities Commission granted permission Tuesday to North American Local LLC, based in Pensacola, Florida.
The federal Lifeline program provides a $34.25 monthly discount to customers nationwide who live on tribal lands and qualify as low-income.
North American Local currently serves tribal areas of Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota and Alabama, according to its lawyer, Gene DeJordy.
In South Dakota, the agreement ratified Tuesday means the company can operate on eight reservations and tribal areas: Pine Ridge, Rosebud, Yankton, Flandreau Santee, Sisseton-Wahpeton, Crow Creek, Lower Brule and Standing Rock.
The Cheyenne River reservation however was specifically excluded, at the request of the Cheyenne River Telephone Authority.
Commission chairman Chris Nelson asked whether that was fair to the “regular folks” who live on the Cheyenne River reservation. “Should we be stamping something that excludes them from this opportunity?”
Darla Pollman Rogers, a Pierre lawyer who represents the Cheyenne River Telephone Authority, said there was good reason.
“There has been some past experiences with this particular type of storefront (that) come in and provide this service that caused some issues for the telephone authority,” she said. “In past experiences, it’s caused more confusion among the customers.”
Nelson said the Cheyenne River Telephone Authority does “a phenomenal job” serving its customers. “But they don’t offer a wireless Lifeline, so that’s the exception.”
Kara Semmler, a Pierre lawyer representing the South Dakota Telecommunications Association, backed up Pollman Rogers.
“The tribe did previously experience a situation where a company kind of rolled in, distributed a lot of phones, don’t provide that customer level of education that we believe is really necessary, and they roll out of town. The customers are left without any recourse and a lot of paperwork to switch back and forth between their Lifeline providers,” Semmler said.
DeJordy, the lawyer for North American Local, who was participating by telephone, said the program has been reformed and the Lifeline market has “changed drastically.”
“I think North American Local will be in a much different position that some of the previous providers of Lifeline service,” DeJordy said. He added, “One of the reasons Cheyenne River was excluded was that it was our understanding that the telephone company and the tribe did not want North American Local at this time to be providing service there.
“North American Local is ready, willing and able to provide service. It has entered into this voluntary stipulation with a lot of different additional requirements to ensure that consumers have good service and that this does not come back to be an issue for the consumers as well as for you and the staff and the commission,” DeJordy continued. “From that standpoint the stipulation is a good starting point, and then you have a commission’s complaint jurisdiction and then you have the new rules of the FCC (Federal Communications Commission). I think all that together provides pretty good assurance that this would be a good thing for South Dakota and tribal residents.”
Responded Nelson, “Based on a lot of Congressional pressure, the FCC and USAC (U.S. Access Board) has instituted a whole number of mechanisms to root out the waste, fraud and abuse that this program has seen in the past, and I think a lot of that has in fact been successful. So we hope that we don’t see that ever again.”
One of the commission’s attorneys, Karen Cremer, asked DeJordy what the effective date should be. He replied, “The company is ready, willing and able to begin providing service right away, but that said, you know one of the steps in the process will be to coordinate with the tribal governments and some of that coordination hasn’t taken place, just because we wanted to make sure the commission itself supported the application and approved the application.
“So I think in terms of when the company would provide service is probably a couple months away. When it will begin coordinating with the tribal governments that will be immediately,” DeJordy continued.
North American Local originally applied to the commission for designation as an eligible telecom carrier for Lifeline throughout South Dakota. That was in 2019. The company later scaled that back to only tribal areas.
Commissioner Gary Hanson called for approval. “I appreciate the fact that so many people were willing to work together to accomplish what they did, and there’s a lot of concerns with making certain that we’ve got affordable telecommunication systems, and this is certainly going to help provide that, and that is our hope,” Hanson said.
Nelson agreed. “Lifeline today is a different program than it was ten years ago, thank goodness. But I will also say that if this doesn’t go well, I’ll be the first commissioner back here jerking somebody’s chain.”