APACHE COUNTY — The information highway is on the verge of creating a new turn-off that leads directly to Apache County schools and libraries. Soon to follow is another new ramp leading right to the Heber-Overgaard School District.
According to Apache County Schools Superintendent R. Barry Williams, the Apache County Schools Business Consortium broadband improvement project is about to begin final testing and is expected to go live on July 1.
The Heber-Overgaard School District, although a smaller project in scope, has just been funded and could begin construction as early as July 1.
Both projects are one of several rural-area school districts in Arizona that applied for and received federal funding through the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), an independent not-for-profit organization designated by the Federal Communications Commission to administer funding for internet services and high-speed fiber optics or “broadband.”
This is also referred to as the Arizona Broadband for Education Initiative which has “collected and allocated all $11 million that was available to broadband projects across the state,” informed Arizona E-Rate director Milan Eaton in an April 22 press release.
The initiative encourages counties, schools and libraries to apply for federal funding through Arizona’s E-Rate program which awards matching funds from the state once approved by USAC.
“It’s been an exceptionally busy E-rate season this year,” adds Eaton. “With diligent work of all of you, Arizona is seeing a steady increase in E-rate usage. All good news for our students!” added Eaton.
Students and teachers first
The reason such projects are good news for students is because the priority is to bring better, faster and more reliable connectivity to tribal and rural-area schools and libraries. In most cases, the combined funding allows the school districts to complete the construction with little or no out-of-pocket cost.
Once the fiber optics or broadband infrastructure is in the schools and libraries, there is collateral benefit for residential and commercial end users.
Eventually, the high-speed services could become available to residents of rural communities. At some point, internet service providers should be able to piggyback onto the fiber optics for a cost that would not otherwise have been be affordable.
Apache County schools
The Apache County project requires that 174 miles of new fiber optic cable be be buried underground or run overhead. Ninety-four miles of the 174 total miles are on the Navajo Nation, which also required special permitting.
St. John’s will serve as a major hub to all five school district offices in Apache County. If all goes as planned, McNary, Round Valley, Vernon, St. Johns, Sanders and Red Mesa will be among the first to “light up, according to Williams.
Concho Elementary School, for logistical reasons, will follow as part of the second Apache County project.
The Heber-Overgaard School District applied for funding on their own due to the uncertainty of the Navajo-Gila County Information Technology Education Consortium (NGCITEC) at the end of last year’s 2018-2019 E-Rate budget cycle.
The school district submitted a separate application last year and was approved for a little over $1 million in funding from USAC, according to the district’s business manager, Brenda Samon.
“We were a part of Navajo County at first but we jumped on our own bandwagon and pursued funding,” explained Samon in a phone interview with the Independent on Wednesday, June 12.
“E-Rate is giving us $800,027 in funding and the state match funding awarded us $100,034,” says Samon.
The project bid was awarded to Cable One and “construction to bring fiber optics from Show Low to Mogollon High School and Capps Middle School should begin on July 1,” says Eaton.
“We are finishing up our five year contract with our existing provider,” informs Samon, “so it works out perfectly, allowing us to switch to Cable One when the project is completed in June of next year.”
“The district’s total cost for internet and wide area network for the whole district will reduce significantly from approximately $8,000 per month to $2,700 per month,” explains Eaton. “In addition, their service speed will increase from 40 meg to 400 meg which is a perfect example of why we do what we do.”
“This is huge in terms of speed for us,” adds Samon. “Sometimes we only get about 10 meg bandwidth at times. It just takes so much time for things to come up [on our computers].”
“400 meg is not even comprehensible to me,” she says. “It will be amazing.”