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‘It’s taken too long’: O’Halleran says funding would help deliver high-speed internet for tribe

TSÉBIGHÁHOODZÁNÍ

Łichíi’ii Chapter President JoAnn Yazzie-Pioche remembers the dozens of students connected to the tribal utility’s Wi-Fi outside the chapter house when COVID-19 began to sweep across the country in March 2020.

Yazzie-Pioche said students downloaded class assignments and did their schoolwork in the chapter parking lot, where they sat frustrated with the digital divide because schools had closed their doors.

“We used to have families out here in the parking lot,” Yazzie-Pioche said at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rural development round table on Friday at Łichíi’ii Chapter.

“A lot of families also went to the (John C. Page Memorial Park in Page, Ariz.) to get close to the high school so kids could do their schoolwork,” she said. “But the students who lived further away in Coppermine, Bodaway-Gap, and in Kaibeto had issues.”

Yazzie-Pioche says many Diné students faced the limitations of high-speed internet connections for at least two years. And relying on their smartphones wasn’t much of an alternative.

Others sat outside cafés, libraries and fast-food restaurants to get free and fast connections.

Internet connections in the Navajo Nation have always been a headache, but that could change soon. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development will begin accepting applications on Sept. 6 for funding to expand access to high-speed internet for millions nationwide in rural America.

This is part of the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to investing in rural infrastructure and affordable high-speed internet.

And the USDA is making the funding available under the “ReConnect Program,” which received new funding from Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Funding the future

Congressman Tom O’Halleran, D-Ariz., said the funding intends to ensure that rural Arizona and rural America, including tribes, get service.

“In other words, it’s about time,” O’Halleran said. “It’s taken too long for the Navajo Nation and other tribal communities along rural Arizona to participate in higher scale.”

O’Halleran said he’s working to meet people’s challenges in the state’s 1st congressional district. His top three priorities are administration for children and families, economic development, and health care.

The congressman said broadband is critical to these issues and education.

“We’ve seen just how essential it is during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the longer communities lack broadband, the farther they’ll fall in other areas,” O’Halleran explained. “For our communities to thrive in a 21st-century economy, it is critical we ensure they have reliable, high-speed, and affordable broadband.”

He says better broadband is happening now in northern Arizona.

“The state dedicated $100 million of the funding the state received from the American Rescue Plan Act to building out ‘Middle Mile’ (broadband initiative) infrastructure along Interstate 17 and I-19,” O’Halleran said. “The construction on I-17 is expected to be completed (this year).”

O’Halleran said the state also dedicated $100 million of the funding from the ARPA for a statewide broadband grant program.

And the Navajo Nation received $2 billion from ARPA and plans to use $208 million for broadband.

“Arizona will receive $190 million through the Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund created under the ARPA,” O’Halleran said. “The ARPA (is) very specific – rural and tribal lands come first. So, we’re going to keep a very close eye on how the state allocates that.

“Arizona cities and counties received $1 billion in direct funding from the ARPA, and some plan to use funds on broadband or as matching funds for federal broadband grants,” he said. “Arizona schools and libraries have received over $150 million, (of which) $24 million to (the) 1st district.”

O’Halleran added that Emergency Connectivity Fund, created under the ARPA, helped schools and libraries pay for necessary equipment and networks for remote learning early in the coronavirus pandemic.

“But we saw that it only worked in some places, and it didn’t work everywhere,” he said, “and we want it to work for all constituents and all Americans.”

Moving forward

O’Halleran’s congressional staffer, Sierra Fuller, said there was a lot of flexibility as some grants were released in July.

“The infrastructure bill (Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, better known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law) created a couple of new programs,” Fuller said.

Those programs include the Tribal Broadband Connectivity, the Affordable Connectivity Benefit, and the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment to bring reliable, high-speed, affordable broadband service to areas that don’t have internet access.

“The biggest is the BEAD Program,” Fuller said. “That’s the one Tom O’Halleran is saying (would) close the digital divide everywhere and connect the hardest to connect places, which often are rural American and tribal lands.

“There are a lot of things that would have to happen before we can get it,” she added. “We would have to build a plan to show how they’re going to connect all these rural and tribal areas. And we need to make sure (the Navajo Nation) is part of that plan.”

Fuller said once the plan draft is complete, it will be released for public comment, and listening sessions will happen in person and virtually.

ReConnect program

USDA Rural Development Under Secretary Xochitl Torres Small, of Las Cruces, New Mexico, announced in early August that the agency would begin accepting applications on Tuesday for up to $150 million in loans, up to $300 million in loan/grant combinations, and up to $700 million in grants.

The application deadline is 11:59 a.m. (Eastern Daylight Time/9:59 a.m. MST) on Nov. 2.

“So, folks will have a chance to be ready,” said Small, who attended the round table with her staff. “We got started right before the pandemic in 2019, and we’ve been learning every year on how to make it better.”

One of Small’s staffers said 305 applications for about $4.8 million came through in round two. In round three, most applications came from the southeast part of the Navajo Nation.

The agency made several improvements for round four, such as allowing applicants to serve areas where at least 50% of households lack sufficient access, adding a funding category for projects where 90% of households lack adequate access, and waiving the matching funds requirement.

Applications can be submitted through Rural Development’s Rural Utility Service online application portal (https://www.usda.gov/reconnect).

General inquiries may be sent to Laurel Leverrier, assistant administrator for USDA’s Telecommunications Program, at laurel.leverrier@usda.gov or by telephone at 202-720-9554.


About The Author

Krista Allen

Krista Allen, based in Kaibeto, is the assistant editor of the Navajo Times.

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