Guest Column: Broadband, cell coverage – making the Nation competitive
By Asa Begaye and George Rivera Jr.
The purpose of this article is to show the circumstances that affect broadband availability and cellular coverage on the Navajo Nation.
These coverages mean more than simply playing games and watching cat videos – in emergencies people can, have and will not have access to life-saving infrastructure.
Telecommunication business models are a balance between how much money a carrier must spend to bring service to an area and how many customers exist to pay for the infrastructure development.
If the consumers are there, it is a calculation of how much needs to be spent to build communications. If the consumers are not there to pay for construction and maintenance, nothing gets calculated or built.
This is why, in Gallup, one can stream live video, use services such as Netflix, attend school or work online, and not drop a call.
Businesses, even vendors at the Saturday flea market on 9th Street, can use cellular devices to accept credit and debit card payments.
However, if you drive but a short distance north along the 491 entering the reservation, reliable services cease to function.
A few telco towers exist – but between them calls drop. Stability only comes if you park near the towers or when the fields of Farmington can be seen.
There are not enough customers in population centers along the way between Page, Farmington, Gallup and Flagstaff to entice carriers to offer complete coverage on the Nation.
Even if providers give free cell phones to Navajos, they are but paperweights when they get home. No infrastructure, no service.
Traditional telecom providers typically use stationary towers and shelters, cabled together with fiber optic or copper lines. This is robust but requires a lot of maintenance and customers to support such a topology.
On the Nation, ARPA funds are being considered for carriers to upgrade their existing plants. Unfortunately, the old existing 3G tech will take untold millions just to replace with 4G, let alone 4G LTE with no 5G in sight.
If the Nation is lucky, existing coverage areas might improve and maybe another tower or two near profitable population centers will be built with the underserved shrinking slightly.
Who can, then, step into the breech, taking on those “unprofitable, distant small populations” comprising most of the residents on the Navajo Nation?
Are there any providers that can deliver high-speed, 4G LTE legacy and advanced 5G services to the Navajo Nation?
A presentation was made last Friday at the 2021 National Tribal Broadband Summit: Closing the Digital Divide, addressing this very conundrum.
Using microwave wireless technology, the entire outside plant (OSP) cabling infrastructure can be replaced at considerable time and monetary savings.
This is not new, either. The U.S. Defense Department uses this telecommunications configuration.
Soldiers in the field are able, in real time, to see and talk to his or her children at a birthday party more than half a world away using this technology. This technology places a much more complete coverage of the Navajo population within financial grasp.
There are Priority 1, 100% private, Navajo-owned telco service providers stepping up with this very know-how.
Hopefully, given the main purpose of the ARPA funds to include benefiting the small business sector, broadband infrastructure, and the overall Navajo Nation interior economy, the executive, judicial and legislative branches will ensure that Priority 1 Navajo-owned companies will get their due respect.
On behalf of all Navajo-owned small businesses, we respectfully request such consideration in the most fair and meaningful ways possible.
Asa Begaye is chief operations officer of Yáłtí Telecom. He is Navajo, having served as a Vietnam Era veteran of the U.S. Air Force.
George Rivera Jr. is the chief science officer of Yáłtí Telecom. Rivera, Apache, served as the infrastructure specialist for the U.S. Army at the NEC on Ft. Hunter Liggett/Camp/Parks for the 106th Signal Corps.