Internet cutoff at chapter houses, police seek new ways to adapt

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

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WINDOW ROCK, Oct. 16, 2008

The two computers in the main meeting room at the St. Michaels Chapter House have been unused for the past several weeks because the chapter no longer has an Internet connection.

People still occasionally come in wanting to get on the Internet and chapter workers have to tell them that the connection is down and they have no idea when it will be re-established, a chapter officer worker said.

That's the situation at dozens of chapters across the Navajo Nation, thanks to an ongoing dispute between the tribe and OnSat, the company that at one time promised to make the Navajo Reservation a model that undeveloped countries throughout the world could look to for bringing the Internet to their areas.

This week the Economic Development Committee terminated OnSat's lease of a building in Tsé Bonito, N.M., citing unpaid rent and a violation of various tribal laws.

This was the latest in a series of reversals for OnSat and Dave Stephens, company owner, who at one time promised to bring the Internet to all parts of the reservation.

In 2006 and 2007, he seemed to be on the way to doing that, setting up all of the chapters and Head Start classrooms with Internet connections and helping the Division of Public Safety set up Internet service for its various branches, including wireless connections for police cruisers. The latter was supposed to enable officers on patrol to log into data systems and quickly see information on people they stopped for traffic violations, or when called to respond to a crime report.

Also during those two years, Stephen promoted the tribe to play a key role in helping Third World nations develop Internet connectivity. For more than a year, President Joe Shirley Jr. was the public face of this effort, traveling to meetings throughout the world as part of the United Nation's efforts to increase global access to the Internet.

But those days are now over and OnSat's days on the reservation are apparently numbered.

Attempts to get hold of Stephens for this story were unsuccessful. The number in Utah that the tribe has for him has been disconnected and people connected with OnSat in the past said they have no idea where he is now.

Many people in the tribe - including officials for the Information and Technology Department - say they can't talk about OnSat because of a gag order that was placed on the tribe by a Window Rock District Court judge in May 2007.

The gag order was issued at the behest of OnSat, which was seeking to suppress a report by the Navajo Nation auditor general's office that said OnSat had received more than $650,000 in questionable or improper payments from the tribe.

Stephens and Shirley both disputed the finding, saying OnSat's problems stemmed from "tribal politics." Stephens said the audit findings were based on faulty assumptions and a misunderstanding of the contract.

That disagreement is still in court, but the company that doles out federal Internet subsidies - which paid 90 percent of the bill for the tribe's Internet satellite hookups - stopped releasing money to OnSat until it satisfied the questions about its billing and other practices questioned by tribal auditors.

OnSat, in turn, was unable to pay its Utah-based Internet service provider, which announced it would cut off service - including all the chapter and DPS connections - if it didn't get paid.

OnSat said the tribe owed it more than $2 million and threatened to cut off service to the chapter houses in April. Some chapters then came up with the money to pay for their own connections, but they were all cut off Oct. 1.

Vice President Ben Shelly said Tuesday that some chapters obtained Internet service by signing up with other companies but no one seems to know how many chapter houses have lost Internet connectivity.

Orlando Bowman, director of technology and information services for the tribal police department, said the troubles have had little effect on his department because the tribe's IT office has helped the police adapt to the changes.

During the time OnSat was involved with the tribal police department, the department purchased laptops for all of the police cruisers, which enabled officers to do paperwork while on patrol.

To file the reports, they could drive to a nearby chapter house, where wireless Internet transmitters were located.

The system is basically the same today, Bowman said, but instead of going to a chapter house, officers generally have to drive back to their district offices to file the reports they do on their laptops - unless they can find someplace nearby with an Internet connection.

He said what OnSat was able to contribute to the process was getting people together and talking about the need to get the program online. As a result, the police department has been working to bring these advances to the Navajo Reservation.

Just last month, the department instituted the COBRE system, which allows district offices to provide "real time" information to officers in their patrol cars about records they should be aware of in cases they are working on.

For example, said Bowman, this would allow officers working a domestic violence case to quickly learn if any restraining orders had been issued against the suspect or victim.

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