During the past several months, considerable attention has been focused on efforts to provide broadband wireless connectivity to the nation’s first responders. Without question, it’s a worthy topic, because access to broadband has the potential to let public-safety entities be more efficient and make better decisions when every second counts.

But sometimes overshadowed in the quest for high-speed connectivity for first responders, 911 centers and consumers is the fact that some parts of the U.S. still lack the fundamental ability to communicate at all. It’s a reality that was underscored last week during a press conference announcing Lightsquared’s donation of 2,000 satellite phones to the Indian Health Service to improve communications between American Indians and healthcare providers.

“The facts about communications in our Native American communities are as close to tragic as anything that I’ve seen,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said during the press conference. “When we talk about broadband, we about how a 65% adoption rate in general in the U.S. and talk about how that is unacceptable. On native lands, the percentage of adoption of ordinary telephone service is 65% [and the adoption rate of] broadband is much, much worse.”

And the consequences of this situation have proved to be quite severe. In a letter to Genachowski last year, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) recounted the story of man living outside of Gallup, N.M., who missed two opportunities for a life-saving kidney transplant because he lacked telephone service at home and could not be contacted in a timely manner.

Through this pilot program with the Albuquerque office of the Indian Health Service, the satellite phones will be distributed to members of tribal communities in New Mexico, Colorado and Texas. Genachowski applauded the generosity of Lightsquared and the efforts of Udall — whose suggestions resulted in the FCC creating an Office of Native Affairs and Policy — but noted that more is needed to address the problem.

“It is important that we understand that this is a beginning, and there is a lot more work to do,” Genachowski said.

Indeed, the communications plight of American Indians is something that needs to be addressed. Unfortunately, similar problems also exist in many other rural areas of the country, where population densities do not warrant investments from communications providers. Developing mechanisms to solve this sticky equation is a must if policy-makers want to claim ubiquitous communications access for first responders or the general public — and, in many cases, the answers for each sector may be intertwined.

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