A public-spirited deal between two broadband companies has finally created a redundant, outage-resistant system to provide internet and cell phone service in Rim Country and the White Mountains.

The announcement caps years of effort to create a huge, broadband loop, which would curtail sometimes life-threatening outages by rerouting signals to maintain service anytime a line is cut. The deal also help ease one of the big impediments to growth, in an economy increasingly dependent on the Internet.

“This is really unprecedented,” said Lumen (Century Link) Director of Government Affairs Jeff Mirasola, “to have two companies come together and talk about an issue — and not to worry about contracts and costs. We know we’re doing the right thing.”

Sparklight Director of Divisional Operations Ken Conner said, “it’s not unusual for companies to buy capacity from other carriers. What’s unusual is that without a contract in place, people got together and said — ‘we’ll figure out the paperwork later.’”

The two networks have already been connected at a hub in Payson. The companies are still working on upgrading hardware and software so the signals will shift automatically if either company has a break along either line. Currently, system controllers can make the connection manually. The Lumen line enters Payson from Camp Verde while the Sparklight line’s routed through Heber.

The threat that the Backbone Fire last summer would cut off service to the region for an extended period prompted the rare deal between two competing companies.

Lumen’s existing fiberoptic cable runs from Phoenix, through Camp Verde and up to Phoenix and provides service to most of the homes in Payson, through intermediaries like SuddenLink.

Sparklight in 2020 completed a line from Show Low through Heber down to Phoenix. The MHA Foundation gave Sparklight millions to build the line in hopes of just this outcome. The line can provide a high-capacity, high-speed link for businesses along the route — but not necessarily to homeowners or cell phone companies.

Sparklight also has a state/federal E-rate contract to provide a high-speed internet line to schools and libraries.

Moreover, Sparklight serves business and residential customers in the White Mountains, which has also until now suffered from outages at end of a dead-end broadband line connected to a regional trunk line near Winslow. The deal with Lumen will ultimately help prove backup for the White Mountains as well.

The two companies compete on many fronts, but agreed to provide backup to protect the region from an outage without any exchange of money.

The connection was made some months ago, but the two companies announced it just last week.

“Nobody wants this more than I do,” said Lumen’s Conner. “After all the years we’ve gone through trying to get this done.”

He noted that it would have cost Lumen some $15 million to bring an additional line in from Winslow and even more to connect Payson to Phoenix to create a signal loop on its own. The company couldn’t afford the cost for a small number of customers. However, the arrival of the Sparklight line in Payson with MHA’s help finally put a redundant loop within reach.

A still hoped for connection strung on APS power poles along Highway 887 would provide a third link, making the system even more stable. In addition, that line could eventually increase speeds and capacity.

Navajo County is also working on a master plan to further improve broadband service in that region. The plan could help the county to snag millions in new federal broadband infrastructure grants. The plan could connect the APS line to the Cholla power plant, the existing Sparklight system and new, grant-funded systems on the Hopi and Navajo reservations.

The deal with Lumen “just seemed right — the quickest way to get to it,” said Sparklight’s Conner.

“We’re frenemenies,” joked Mirasola. “We’re going to compete. I don’t care. Good for them. But we can’t go through another fire season and have service down for days. And we did it without a piece of paper or anything written down – we just worked it out and neither company has to come up with more cash. Will we make a larger deal down the road? Maybe. I know there’s a need and a want. But the fact is we were able to put this fiber in a relatively small community – a lot of communities up here still don’t have redundant paths in and out.”

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

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