White Mountain Independent
By Peter Aleshire
Navajo County recently put the finishing touches on an ambitious plea for $25 million in federal funding to improve broadband speed and reliability in the southern reaches of the county.
Meanwhile, Arizona Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly announced nearly $1 billion in federal grants to improve broadband coverage on reservation – including the sprawling Navajo Reservation covering northern Navajo and Apache counties.
The twin announcements represent solid progress in efforts by Navajo County to lay the groundwork for a fast and reliable internet network, which economic development officials see as the key to the region’s economic future. Navajo County recently hired a consultant to come up with a broadband master plan that would extend coverage to isolated communities and eliminate the slow speeds and frequent, prolonged outages that have plagued the current system.
Currently, vast stretches of the Navajo Reservation have no broadband coverage at all. Moreover, all of the White Mountains sits at the end of a long, vulnerable internet dead end.
A break in the fiberoptic cables anywhere along the way can knock out service to the whole area for extended periods. The county wants both a higher capacity cable and a broadband loop, so the internet signal can be instantly rerouted when there’s a break.
In June, the Board of Supervisors approved a $25 million grant request, in partnership with Sparklight — also known as CableOne.
“Navajo County is currently conducting a Broadband Strategic Plan process that has also highlighted the need for additional redundancy in the area. Frequent outages due to fiber cuts have led to a slew of problems including putting the County’s public safety communications at risk, disabling business operations, and leaving residents without access to critical services,” said the grant application.
The wildfire currently menacing Heber has underscored the danger. Most people in the rapidly growing communities of Heber and Overgaard have no internet access at all, which makes it much harder for them to track the danger as the fire approaches or to receive emergency notifications from the sheriff. An outage would cripple even first responders, who also rely on the internet.
“Given these issues, the County proposes to supplement existing privately-owned middle-mile infrastructure with a County-owned middle mile backbone that will provide redundancy for the population centers of the county, including Heber-Overgaard, Holbrook, Snowflake and Show Low,” according to the application.
The first part of the grant would create a new, 40-mile-long county-owned “middle-mile” line between Heber and Holbrook to connect to two different existing privately owned lines. This would create a triangular, broadband loop to protect the whole region — including Show Low, Snowflake, Pinetop and other communities from outages caused by a single line break. So if the existing Sparklight line gets cut by a bulldozer or a flood or even a fast-chewing ground squirrel, customers would not lose service. This new county-owned line would cost about $14.5 million, with the county covering about 10% of the cost and the federal government footing the bill for 90%.
The second part of the grant would provide a county-owned broadband network in Heber-Overgaard, where only about 29% of residents have access to the Internet. The project would involve about 114 miles of new cable and provide Internet service to about 994 households, 20 businesses, county facilities, fire stations and a Summit Health Clinic.
The project would include buried, underground cables around the edge of both Heber and Overgaard as well as above-ground wires on poles to along all the major streets. The cost for the Heber network would run to about $11.1 million, according to the grant application.
County economic development officials have said that providing reliable internet that can support telecommuting, people working at home, telemedicine, internet sales for local businesses and rapidly expanding consumer demands for fast, high-speed service remains the key to future economic growth in the county. The pandemic underscored the importance of the internet to medicine, education and business. That’s especially true in rural areas, as people who worked from home during the pandemic begin to rethink whether they want to continue living in expensive, crowded urban centers.
The pandemic also knocked loose money to improve broadband service on reservations. The Navajo Reservation was among the worst hit areas in the nation, partly because many people don’t have water or electricity, much less an internet that would make it possible to function when in lockdown.
Kelly and Sinema lobbied the Biden administration to include money to improve broadband in rural areas — especially reservations — in the American Rescue Act pandemic stimulus bill. That included $7 billion to support distance learning programs for schools and $300 million for rural broadband expansion through public and private partnerships as well as $1 billion for tribal lands through National Telecommunications and Information Systems grants.
“Today’s grant funding expands broadband access on Tribal lands,” said Sinema in a release, “boosting jobs and educational opportunities by making critical investments to close the digital divide.”
Kelly noted, “this is a much-needed investment in tribal broadband, ensuring that more small businesses, schools and families on tribal lands can access reliable broadband and key economic and education opportunities as our economy continues to recover from this pandemic.”