Navajo County’s long struggle to secure reliable broadband internet access received two giant pieces of good news this week.
First, the Federal Communications Commission opened an investigation into a two-day outage in Snowflake and Taylor that resulted in at least one death.
Second, Navajo County got news it has received a second, $10-million grant to build a new main trunkline from Holbrook to Show Low, creating a broadband loop far more resistant to outages – not to mention faster.
“Navajo County has struggled with an absence of reliable broadband options for years and the Board of Supervisors has aggressively pursued opportunities to make accessible broadband a reality in rural Arizona,” said Navajo County Chairwoman Dawnafe Whitesinger. “This grant is an incredible opportunity to leverage the county’s funds to begin construction of a middle-mile network.”
In addition, the commerce authority awarded Sparklight a $4-million grant to expand broadband access in Heber-Overgaard, which will connect to the new county line.
So that’s the carrot.
But the FCC also pulled out the stick, in response to a request from Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Oak Creek, whose redrawn Congressional District 2 includes all of Navajo, Apache and Gila counties.
“I’m pleased to see the FCC will open an investigation into this outage that left hardworking rural Arizonans in Apache and Navajo County without the ability to call 911, their loved ones, even their neighbors,” said O’Halleran. “I am committed to holding those responsible accountable and working with local, state and federal officials to prevent future outages and ensure families in rural areas are not overlooked.”
The vandalism is already being investigated by state, local and federal authorities as a potential terrorist act, since it affected emergency communications. The break also shut down many businesses, making it impossible for them to run credit cards, fulfill online orders and maintain their communications networks.
The FCC directed the agency’s enforcement bureau to investigate the pattern of outages in areas served by Frontier Communications Corp.
The latest outage came after someone with a shotgun blasted the broadband wire strung on poles in two widely separated locations. Frontier sent out crews to locate both places the line had been shredded, but even after it repaired the line some cell phone companies connecting to the network remained offline for nearly two days.
During that time, residents couldn’t call 911 for medical emergencies – leading to at least one known death.
The Arizona Corporation Commission also has launched an investigation into the outage – particularly the interruption of 911 emergency services. The ACC held a public hearing on July 7 in St. Johns to listen to frustrated residents, who decried the vulnerability of the system to prolonged outages.
The incident dovetails with Navajo County’s year-long study into how it can improve the speed and reliability of internet service, which has become critical not only to emergency services but for economic development.
The county’s efforts got a major boost months ago when it received a $10-million infrastructure grant from the federal government through the pandemic American Rescue Plan package.
The county hired a consulting firm to draw up a plan to create a second trunk line from Holbrook to Show Low in the White Mountains. Currently, southern Navajo County relies on a single, dead-end trunk line from Phoenix up through the Salt River Canyon and into Show Low. A break in the line anywhere along that line kills service to everything downstream from the break. The new trunk line from Holbrook would create a loop. In that case, the signal could be rerouted in the event of a break anywhere along that long loop.
The county’s consultant, WANRack, is also working on how to connect the new loop to broadband lines on the Navajo Nation that also received millions in federal infrastructure money. Many people on the reservation not only have no internet – they have no water or electricity.
Now the second $10 million broadband grant will provide enough money to build a “middle-mile” fiber network that businesses and internet companies can tap into.
The county’s feasibility study demonstrated that not only does the county have many internet deserts, but even where homeowners and businesses get service the speeds on average are much less than the providers have promised.
Construction on the new line will start later this year and the line should be in service by 2024. Arizona Public Service Co., the state’s largest utility, has agreed to let the county string the new fiberoptic cable on its existing poles in its right of way. The new line will become part of the Northern Arizona Council of Governments Broadband Strategic Plan.
Completion of the new line will not only reduce the chance of additional dangerous outages, it will boost the county’s efforts to attract new businesses.
“Studies conducted by the REAL AZ Economic Development Group have shown that the lack of redundant broadband internet has stifled business development and expansion in the region,” explained Navajo County District 3 Supervisor Jason Whiting. “Every company looking at expanding in Navajo County has questions about broadband. It is as important as power and water in a world of online commerce. We have a strong vision for Navajo County’s economy and this funding for high-speed internet infrastructure will help meet businesses’ needs.”
Peter Aleshire covers state and county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org