Broadband improvements are still battling Arizona

Missed Opportunities.

That was the story of the long struggle for fast, reliable, and flexible broadband connections across the vastness of Navajo County. The pandemic underscored the crisis as businesses and schools closed without the need for internet connections to continue functioning.

The pandemic underscored the incipient realization that without broadband, rural areas could be excluded from the 21st century economy – without the infrastructure that businesses, doctors, schools and libraries need to connect. Representatives of the district’s business development agency say the district could benefit from the flight of many people from urban areas – but only if it offers fast and reliable internet.

After years of the jawbone, Navajo County Regulators signed a six-month contract for $ 73,000 on Monday with a company that has promised to develop engineering plans for nationwide, redundant, high-speed broadband.

The move comes exactly when the state and federal government have approved billions of additional funds to bolster the country’s broadband network – especially in underserved rural areas. Navajo County hopes detailed plans will help it move forward for the desperately sought state and federal grants.

Magellan Advisors has developed detailed technical plans to create broadband networks across the country and is currently in a contract to develop a plan for the Navajo Nation, which comprises the northern half of the county.

Superiors Jason Whiting said the county had to act. “We’ve had studies done before, and I know a lot of our partners are a bit burned out because just those studies were done and nothing happened.”

“What sets our work apart,” said Jory Wolf, Magellan’s vice president of digital innovation, “is that we come up with a shovel-ready plan that can be submitted with a grant application.” It’s gradual. It won’t come in the form of a grant. It will have the engineering required for multiple grants. “

Newly-elected Supervisor Fern Benally, who telephoned the Zoom meeting because of a lack of internet connectivity on the Navajo reservation, said, “I just want to make sure the remote parts of Navajo County are included in this strategic plan. As you can see, I’m on the phone because I can’t make a Zoom call. This is a problem for many of our students in Navajo County – they fall behind because they cannot increase their teachers for a good education. “

Chief Executive Officer Daryl Seymore said, “The Navajo Nation is a great partner, that is definitely something that is being considered in this proposal.”

The contract comes at a crucial time as the state and federal government allocate more money to fund broadband infrastructure after the pandemic.

The federal government’s second COVID aid package just passed included $ 7 billion to upgrade broadband nationwide, especially in rural areas. Other federal programs have topped up funds for efforts to improve broadband availability for reserves, with the Navajo nation among the countries hardest hit by the pandemic.

The state has also increased funding for broadband, including a proposal in Governor Doug Ducey’s budget for 2021-22 that will allocate $ 10 million for rural broadband and $ 50 million for adding broadband cables in Arizona alongside major states and regions interstate states provide freeway routes. This could include a high-speed route from Phoenix to Payson. This line could then be connected to a recently completed line from Heber to Payson. The governor’s 21-22 budget would pay 500 miles of new fiber line, including long stretches of I-17, I-40, and I-19.

Last year, the state provided around $ 3 million to improve rural broadband, which helped fund a link between Payson and the White Mountains.

Most of Navajo County is currently at the end of a broadband cul-de-sac – with a single line connected to the White Mountains via Globe. An interruption anywhere along this long, vulnerable line can result in an outage that can turn off not only broadband but also cellular service, which often relies in part on a broadband connection. Sparklight recently completed its connection to Payson, but until the lines form a complete loop that encompasses the valley and the lines along Interstate 40, which is also connected by trunk lines through the Camp Verde, Navajo and Apache counties, they will remain exposed to outages .

The federal government has also funded e-rate grants to provide reliable high-speed internet to schools and libraries. The state has distributed federal e-rate grants, including $ 124 million in 2018-19, an additional $ 150 million in 2019-20, and nearly $ 200 million in 2020-21. .

Navajo and Gila counties have received the lion’s share of the state’s game for e-rate funding so far this year, around $ 61 million, according to the state.

Still, only 23% of Arizona school districts meet the national broadband accessibility benchmarks. Many rural areas that were forced to switch to distance learning found that students did not have an internet connection at home that would allow them to keep up.

Navajo County hopes Magellan will be able to develop a detailed engineering plan over the next six months to increase broadband speed and reliability across the county. In addition, the plan will highlight the loopholes in the network that leave many communities unconnected. The plan will also identify all possible partners to ensure that as many residents and businesses as possible are connected without the expensive duplication of effort.

Deputy District Manager Bryon Layton said, “We know we are having a hard time getting high-speed internet. We fight with reliability. Businesses of all sizes depend on broadband. We know that reliable, high-speed internet is essential for growth and development. We don’t need another study – we need a plan to get us where we want to be. “

He noted that the county staff spoke to other counties and broadband providers who recommended Magellan. The district awarded the professional contract without tendering, which is permitted under state law for professional services, but not for construction work.

According to Wolf, Magellan has 425 customers nationwide, including several tribal communities. The company has planned and overseen the construction of 50 community networks and oversaw construction projects valued at $ 1 billion to provide broadband to one million households.

Wolf said the project will first look at the grants available.

“We want to understand what grant opportunities in Navajo County and its communities are early on in the process,” said Melanie Downing, also at Magellan.

The study will include a “market analysis and gap analysis” to determine which areas are left unserved or underserved. “We want to make sure we close this digital divide,” she said.

Keith Watkins of the Arizona Commerce Authority praised Navajo County for its head start on a comprehensive plan. “We are all victims of study fatigue – we’re tired of talking about these things – we need to focus on the detailed level of planning of how it’s going to work. I applaud the county for taking this step and engaging with this caliber of a group to get this off the ground. We fully support Navajo County in this step.

“There has never been a better time to move forward,” agreed Seymore, before the county regulators unanimously voted in favor of the no-bid contract.

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other issues for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at [email protected]

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