Bits and pieces.
Dead end lines.
Dead end studies.
That’s been the story of the long struggle to provide fast, reliable, flexible broadband connections across the vast sprawl of Navajo County. The pandemic underscored the crisis, with businesses and schools shuttered without the internet connections needed to still function.
The pandemic underscored the dawning realization that rural areas without broadband could find themselves locked out of the 21st Century economy — without the infrastructure needed for businesses, doctors, schools and libraries to connect. County economic development officials say the county could capitalize on the flight of many people from urban areas — but only if it offers fast, reliable internet.
So after years of jawboning, the Navajo County Board of Supervisors on Monday signed a $73,000, six-month contract with a company that has promised to draw up engineering plans for a county-wide, redundant, high-speed broad band.
The move comes just as the state and federal government have authorized billions in additional money to bolster the nation’s broadband network — especially in underserved rural areas. Navajo County hopes that detailed plans will help it elbow its way to the front of the line for those desperately sought state and federal grants.
Magellan Advisors has developed detailed engineering plans to create broadband networks all over the country and currently has a contract to develop a plan for the Navajo Nation, which makes up the Northern half of the county.
Supervisors Jason Whiting said the county must act. “We’ve had studies done before and I know a lot of our partners got a little burned out with just those studies being done and nothing happening.”
“What differentiates the work we’re doing,” said Jory Wolf, Magellan’s vice president for digital innovation, “is we’re providing a plan that’s shovel ready that could be submitted with a grant application. It is stepwise. It won’t come in the form of one grant. It will have the engineering needed for multiple grants.”
Newly elected Supervisor Fern Benally, participating in the zoom meeting by phone for lack of an internet connection on the Navajo Reservation, said, “I just want to make sure that the remote parts of Navajo County are included in this strategic plan. As you guys see, I’m on the phone because I can’t do a zoom call. That’s an issue for a lot of our students in Navajo County — they are falling behind because they’re unable to zoom in on their teachers for a good education.”
Board Chairman Daryl Seymore said, “the Navajo Nation is a big partner, that’s definitely something that’s considered in this proposal.”
The contract comes at a key moment, as the state and federal government set aside more money to fund broadband infrastructure in the wake of the pandemic.
The just-passed second federal COVID relief package included $7 billion to upgrade broadband throughout the nation, especially in rural areas. Other federal programs have increased funding for efforts to improve broad band on reservations, with the Navajo Nation among the most hard-hit by the pandemic.
The state has also boosted funding for broadband, including a proposal in Gov. Doug Ducey’s 2021-22 budget to include some $10 million for rural broad band as well as $50 million to help the Arizona Department of Transportation add broadband cables alongside key state and interstate highway routes. That could include a high-capacity line from Phoenix to Payson. That line could then connect with a just completed line from Heber to Payson. The governor’s 21-22 budget would pay for 500 miles of new conduit for fiber optic cable including long stretches of I-17, I-40 and I-19.
Last year, the state provided about $3 million in funding for rural broadband improvements, which helped pay for a connection between Payson and the White Mountains.
Most of Navajo County currently sits at the end of a broadband cul de sac – with a single line connected through Globe to the White Mountains. A break anywhere along that long, vulnerable line can produce an outage that can knock out not only broadband but the cell phone service that often relies in part on a broadband connection. Sparklight has recently completed the connection to Payson, but until the lines create a complete loop involving the Valley and lines along Interstate 40 that also connect to trunk lines through Camp Verde, Navajo and Apache counties will remain prey to outages.
The federal government has also been funding E-rate grants to provide schools and libraries with reliable, high-speed internet. The state has been handing out the federal e-rate grants, including $124 million in 2018-19, another $150 million in 2019-20 and nearly $200 million in 2020-21. .
Navajo and Gila counties have so far received the lion’s share of the state match for E-rate funding this year, some $61 million, according to the state.
Nonetheless, only 23% of Arizona school districts meet the national affordability benchmarks for broadband access. Many rural districts forced to shift to distance learning found student didn’t have internet connections at home that enabled them to keep up.
Navajo County hopes that Magellan can in the next six months come up with a detailed engineering plan to boost the speed and reliability of broadband throughout the county. Moreover, the plan will pinpoint the gaps in the network that leave many communities unconnected. The plan will also identify all the possible partners to make sure as many residents and businesses as possible get connected, without an expensive duplication of effort.
Assistant County Manager Bryon Layton said “We know we struggle to get high-speed internet. We struggle with reliability. Businesses of every size depend on broadband. We know reliable, high-speed internet is essential for growth and development. We don’t need another study — we need a plan to get us where we want to go.”
He noted that county staff talked to other counties and broadband providers, who recommended Magellan. The county awarded the professional contract without competitive bidding, which is allowed under state law for professional services but not construction.
Wolf said Magellan has 425 clients nationwide, including several tribal communities. The company has designed and overseen the construction of 50 community networks and overseen $1 billion in construction projects providing broadband to a million homes.
Wolf said the project will start by looking at available grants.
“We want to understand the grant opportunities at Navajo County and its municipalities are eligible for very early in the process,” said Melanie Downing, also with Magellan.
The study will include a “market analysis and gap analysis” to determine what areas remain unserved or underserved. “We want to make sure that we are addressing that digital divide,” she said.
Keith Watkins, with the Arizona Commerce Authority, praised Navajo County for getting a head start on a comprehensive plan. “We are all victims of study fatigue — we’re tired of talking about these things — we need to get down to the granular planning level of how it’s going to work. I applaud the county for taking this step and engaging with this caliber a group to get this going. We are fully supportive of Navajo County taking this step.
“There has never been a better time to move forward,” agreed Seymore, before the county supervisors voted unanimously to award the no-bid contract.