Wednesday, July 17, 2024

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Letters | ‘Nation is falling behind’ in access to mobile broadband


Poor mobile service is one of the great frustrations in America and nowhere is it more evident than in the Navajo Nation. Whether it’s access to emergency services or ordering takeout, a smartphone has become a common and valuable commodity in improving everyday life, and increasingly, a personal gateway to the Internet but only if you have a connection.

While the Navajo Nation has experienced improvements in basic cellular service over the past 25 years, it once again is at risk of falling behind in the latest wireless infrastructure to support mobile broadband, including 5G. Navajo consumers should not accept a lower quality of service and should ask, ‘Why does such disparity still exist between the Nation and the rest of the country? What can be done about it?’

It would stand to reason that the Navajo government should listen to local and national wireless carriers to increase broadband access and adopt sensible policies that expand access. Instead, it is pursuing regulations that, if adopted, will hamper progress, and discourage future investment. This approach is not in the public interest and conflicts with the Nygren economic strategy.

Unfortunately, after a 3-year process, the tribal government has proposed Tower Siting Regulations in a 25-page document written by an outside consultant behind closed doors, with sparse engagement with the public. Fundamentally, any regulations impacting commercial services should be developed under open transparency and only adopted with sufficient public input on community needs. Neither the Navajo Nation Telecommunications Regulatory Commission Office nor the Land Department has done anything to help the public understand the changes that will be imposed.

Perhaps the most harmful impact of the proposed regulations is they will reduce opportunity to install wireless infrastructure in currently installed locations, which is a commonplace practice throughout the US. There are, at least, 325 K-12 schools on Navajo, where land clearances, access, and utilities are already established. There are scores of water tanks, billboards, and other sites that will be largely off limits. Finding new locations to install and obtain new clearances will make them too costly and deter additional installations.

If the proposed regulations are adopted, it will centralize telecom leasing and payments under the sole administration of the Land Department and not Economic Development. This denies schools, corporations, Chapters, townships and small business owners the right to sublease and profit off lands they manage. This removes local governance, local control and local revenue.

Finally, sensible regulatory reforms on broadband that balance public interest and economic objectives require the involvement of service providers, not only for their experience and expertise but to build a working relationship between the public and private sectors. This is crucial if the Navajo Nation aims to attract future capital investment from national wireless providers such as Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile.

This is why all the national and local providers filed objections to the draft regulations released over 2 years ago. They have repeatedly sought to participate in the rulemaking process – the NNTRC and Navajo Land Department have thus far ignored these cautions. Overly burdensome regulations and fees only discourage development.

The proposed regulations will impact every business case for new towers and cell services and those that are not sustainable will not be built. The ‘digital divide’ will be here to stay.

The ANB encourages mobile phone users on the Navajo Nation to become better informed about government policies that may affect their broadband services. For more information, visit our Facebook page ‘Alliance for Navajo Broadband’ and post your concern.

Joy Thompson, executive director
Alliance for Navajo Broadband
Ft. Defiance, Ariz., and Gallup


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