Partnership aims for broadband strategy for rez

WINDOW ROCK

Broadband internet access has come to the reservation piecemeal.

Two different programs in 2018 hooked up a handful of chapter houses and schools to fiber-optic cable, which offers data speeds theoretically up to 20 times faster than the digital subscriber line service most people on the reservation are using.

But a tapestry of different providers, different state and federal programs and different state regulations have made the process a chaotic free-for-all when much could be gained by working together and having a strategic overall plan.

The Navajo Cyberteam, started in 2017 under former Navajo Nation Telecommunications Regulatory Commission Executive Director Theresa Hopkins, recently partnered with consultant Americas Communications LLC on a comprehensive survey of connectivity at all 110 Navajo chapters, including providers, speed, cost and infrastructure.

That study, authorized by legislation in 2018, is complete and the Nation is just waiting on the final data, according to Pearl Lee, program manager for Navajo Nation Telecommunications and Utilities.

The second phase, contracted to Magellan Advisors, will use that data to develop a comprehensive plan to get broadband internet access to every corner of the reservation.

It won’t be cheap, but according to Magellan CEO Courtney Violette, there’s “lots of money out there” in the form of state, federal and private grants — “billions of dollars geared to deploying high-speed internet in unserved and hard-to-reach areas.”

Magellan is three to four months into the 12-month project, Violette said. With the help of the Cyberteam, the company plans to map priority locations for broadband access — chapter houses, schools, police and fire stations — and existing infrastructure, while also zeroing on some more detailed data.

“We want to engage everyone,” said Violette. There will be an online survey about connectivity and every individual and business on the Navajo Nation is encouraged to fill it out.

“Then we’ll use e-test capability to capture data and actually see what kind of internet speed people are getting.”

Two surveys, one on internet and one on cellular phone service, are available at www.surveygizmo.com/s3/5343884/Navajo-Nation-Broadband-Survey and www.surveygizmo.com/s3/5344376/Navajo-Nation-Cellular-Survey, respectively.

According to Brent Nelson, systems and programs manager for the Division of Diné Education, the impacts of getting broadband to the rez would be huge.

“The ultimate goal is affordability,” said Nelson, explaining that once the infrastructure is in, more providers could compete to offer service, driving down the price.

Faster internet speeds would improve education, public safety, health, business, entertainment and many more aspects of life on the reservation.

“In today’s world, we rely on technology for everything,” he said.

Violette said his company recently put together a plan for a group of villages in northern Ontario, Canada, and getting broadband to the remote area was “transformative.”

“These are people who didn’t understand what Facebook is, who didn’t have Netflix,” said Violette. “Now they can have a two-way video conversation with their doctor, take online classes at Harvard … if they want to get a job in a remote call center and work from home, they can.”

“Think of all those kids on the reservation who have long bus rides to and from school,” added Orlando Bowman, a member of the Cyberteam from the Division of Public Safety. “We could equip school buses with wi-fi so those kids could do their homework on the bus. There’s all kinds of things that could happen if the Navajo Nation would come together.”


About The Author

Cindy Yurth

Cindy Yurth is the Tséyi' Bureau reporter, covering the Central Agency of the Navajo Nation. Her other beats include agriculture and Arizona state politics. She holds a bachelor’s degree in technical journalism from Colorado State University with a cognate in geology. She has been in the news business since 1980 and with the Navajo Times since 2005, and is the author of “Exploring the Navajo Nation Chapter by Chapter.” She can be reached at cyurth@navajotimes.com.

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