Bureaucratic red tape and a lack of federal funding threaten to shut down satellite services that support public-safety communications throughout the Navajo Nation’s 27,000-square-mile territory. The satellite system supports 127 public safety access points for police, medical and other emergency services.

Satellite communications provider SES Americom originally planned to shut down service on July 22 because its third-party provider had not received payment from the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), an independent, not-for-profit corporation designated by the FCC to administrate the federal Universal Service Fund (USF). USF was established by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 as a means of bringing advanced telecommunications services to rural and low-income areas, including Native American tribal lands.

For the last 14 months the Navajo Nation has lobbied SES and its partner OnSat to continue service while the companies wait for the USF funding. SES provides transponder service to OnSat, which provides the equipment and operates the Navajo Nation’s communications network. SES’ contract with OnSat expired June 30 and the satellite company told OnSat in April the contract couldn't be renewed while there were outstanding payments.

“SES Americom has not been paid by the federal government via the USF program,” said Navajo Nation spokesman John Adams. “It’s taxpayer money provided for … satellite communications for schools and libraries on Native American reservations who wouldn’t be able to afford it otherwise.”

The FCC met with SES, which agreed to extend services to Aug. 1 in hopes of resolving the issue. If no resolution can be found, the tribe will have to do without services until it finds another provider, which must be approved by the FCC.

The tribe currently is lobbying the FCC to take immediate action to prevent the shutdown. It also wants to know why the USAC is withholding the funds and what steps need to be taken to get them released. According to Adams, the shutdown would cause “undue hardship by terminating these services over bureaucratic issues.”

“Satellite is needed for communications … it’s of huge importance for all emergency services: police, ambulance and fire throughout the Navajo reservation,” Adams said. “There is a lot of different topology on the reservation, which means no other communications vehicle … could work.”