Clinton promises to bridge digital divide
In what was the first visit by a United States president to the Navajo Nation, President Bill Clinton came to Shiprock April 17 with a promise to bridge the “digital divide.” Speaking to a crowd of 25,000 at the Shiprock Boys’ and Girls’ Club, Clinton announced his proposal to bring more than $100 million dollars to rural communities across the United States without widespread access to the Internet, places like the Navajo Nation.
Myra Jodie, a thirteen-year old Ganado Middle School student, introduced the president. Jodie, who recently won a computer from a website, is representative of the problems on the reservation. Since there is no phone in her home, she can’t hook her new computer up to the Internet, and without the Internet, she does not have the same technological advantages many kids across the country take for granted.
“Imagine if all your children had access to the same world of knowledge at the same instance as children in the wealthiest communities in America....Imagine if they could commute to high-tech, high-paying jobs in the large cities just by getting on a computer...,” Clinton said during his speech.
While many youth feel they must leave the reservation for jobs, the Internet could change that. It would “give Navajo people, especially Navajo young people, the chance to fulfill their abilities and live out their dreams without having to give up their culture, their language, their heritage,” said Clinton.
Clinton pointed out that lack of Internet communication on the Navajo Nation is, in fact, a “cruel irony.”
“It is fitting that we begin this day by recalling [the Navajo Nation Code Talkers]... After all, there are few people in America who better embody the power of communication... For more than 50 years after the Code-Talkers were able to communicate with one another, over great distances in the Pacific, [but] it is still hard to communicate between many parts of the Navajo Nation itself....
“An astonishing 37 percent of households are without electricity; about 70 percent are without phone service; more than half are without work,” said Clinton.
And according to statistics from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, since 38.8 percent of the Navajo Nation is younger than age 16, the local economy will have to create 3,500 jobs per year in order to keep an already high unemployment rate in check.
Although the Internet could offer a solution to the unemployment rate, only 22.5 percent of Navajo homes currently have telephone service.
To rectify this problem, said Clinton, “Federal Communications Chairman, Bill Kennard, is proposing to expand the Lifeline program to ensure that every Native American who needs it will be able to get basic phone service for as little as $1 a month.” The Lifeline program provides a discount on local phone bills for low-income customers. Kennard is proposing a new investment of approximately $17 million to expand the program.
In a press release, Kennard noted, “This proposal would virtually eliminate affordability of monthly bills as a barrier to local service. It would create a market which telecommunications companies will be eager to serve, and result in an increase in modern infrastructure in Tribal areas....I am hopeful that over 300,000 Indian households will benefit from this new discount.”
Clinton pointed out that many other organizations are already involved in the effort to bridge the digital divide: “Native American Systems...is committing $100,000 state-of-the-art satellite communications to the Red Rock Day School....Tachyon is providing satellite Internet access to Diné College and the Lake Valley School. Compaq will provide $500,000 to spur the TechCorps schools partnership, which uses the Internet and TechCorps volunteers to help teachers make the best use of technology in the classroom....Microsoft will provide $2.75 million in software and technical support for the American Indian Tribal College program, which will directly benefit Diné College. Andersen Consulting has committed $100,000 to support small business in Indian country, something we need more of....Healtheon/WebMD will provide valuable Internet sources to the medical professionals at the Indian Health Service facility right here in Shiprock.
In fact, President Clinton later participated in an Internet video conference with students from Diné College and Lake Valley School, 150 miles away. That conference was made possible by technology installed by Tachyon, Inc.
The president indicated that this proposal is just a part of his effort to develop a stronger government-to-government relationship with Native American nations.
“...[As] we all know, though many of your ancestors gave up fighting and gave up land and water and mineral rights in exchange for peace, security, health care and education, the federal government did not live up to its end of the deal. That was wrong....There is nothing more important to me than getting this government-to-government relationship right—but getting it right in a way that will empower you to lift yourselves and your children, to fulfill your potential and your dreams; not a patronizing relationship, but an empowering one; not a handout, but a hand up, a genuine partnership so that your children can live their dreams...