The quest for improved infrastructure in rural Apache and Navajo counties — especially broadband — remains at the top of newly re-elected Rep. Tom O’Halleran’s agenda.

His quest to bolster rural internet coverage was bolstered last week with his appointment as co-chair of a bipartisan caucus focused on broadband deployment and an all-out effort to close the “digital divide” that separates urban and rural areas.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the digital divide that far too many families in rural communities in our district, and across the country, have struggled with for decades,” said O’Halleran.

The newly formed, 70-member coalition of rural representatives from both parties sent a letter to President Joe Biden urging him to make improvements in rural broadband systems a top priority in infrastructure and COVID stimulus measures.

“Rural and tribal areas cannot attract and retain businesses and human resources if they are insufficiently connected. High-speed broadband facilities agricultural efficiency for farmers, supplies students and teachers with unlimited access to educational materials and allows for doctor’s visits at home,” said the letter.

The former police officer and school board member is among a block of moderates with an outsized influence in a closely divided Congress. Moreover, Arizona has moved from a deep red state that national Democrats have long written off to a newly purple state critical to both presidential elections and senate control.

“We spend more time on broadband development than almost any other issue in my office. It’s a priority and should be a priority for all of our country,” O’Halleran told the Independent as he listed some of the top priorities for the current session of Congress.

The focus on infrastructure and broadband comes at a critical moment, with billions of federal e-rate educational funds and COVID stimulus funds available for grants to cities and counties. Just last month, the Navajo County Board of Supervisors awarded a $73,000 to the Magellan Advisors to come up with a master plan to provide fast, reliable internet throughout the county. The plan will produce grant-ready blueprints to boost speeds, create loops to avoid outages and cover the gaps in Internet coverage. The company also has a contract to do the same thing on the Navajo Reservation.

“For rural America, the (broadband) speeds the Federal Communication Commission is requiring are not even usable anymore and they have to be updated to speeds that can allow companies to move into our area,” said O’Halleran.

Rural areas need broadband to compete for economic development. “We want our schools and students to compete with anybody. And our health care system — you can’t do telemedicine at the levels that need to be done at the speeds that are out there.”

Moreover, broadband remains the key to attracting economic development in rural areas like the White Mountains, he added. “People who live in urban centers looking for a better quality of life can come and do that in rural America” if those regions have an adequate broadband infrastructure. “It doesn’t make any sense to me that we’ve been year after year and decade after decade not addressing this issue.”

The potential flood of federal grant money comes in the wake of the pandemic, which underscored the critical impact of broadband on services and economic development in rural areas. Many rural school districts couldn’t effectively provide distance learning programs during the pandemic — and rural residents suffered from the lack of a system that could deliver telemedicine services. At the same time, the explosive growth in Zoom meetings for business and the enhanced productivity when many workers started working from home revealed the economic benefits of an adequate broadband network in rural Apache and Navajo counties.

The lesson wasn’t lost on Congress, said O’Halleran, whose 1st Congressional District stretches from Pinal County to the far reaches of Apache and Navajo counties — as well as most of Coconino County and southern Gila County. O’Halleran represents one of the most competitive districts in the state. He’s a moderate Democrat who belongs to both the bipartisan Problem Solver’s Caucus and the Blue Dog Democratic Caucus. He’s one of a group of moderates who may prove especially influential in the Biden administration, especially given Arizona’s new swing state status.

He said he hopes the Biden administration will follow through on its expressed support for a major infrastructure bill to bolster the economy and provide more blue-collar jobs. O’Halleran said he was frustrated at the previous administration’s failure to adopt an $85-billion infrastructure bill that stressed broadband in rural and tribal areas.

“The bill sat on (Senate Majority Leader Mitch) McConnell’s desk and never moved. The whole package was $1.5 trillion that included ports, roads, bridges — you name it — all things that are so far deficient that we need to spend trillions to bring things up to speed.”

He said congressmen who represent rural areas must try harder to enlist the support of the urban area representatives who have the most votes. “The electrical power, the water, the food — those all come from the rural areas. They don’t just appear suddenly in the urban areas.”

The congressman said broadband’s at the head of his list of priorities – starting with pushing the FCC to provide a national map of the existing broadband infrastructure to prioritize filling the gaps and improving access. The existing federal maps are badly outdated, he said.

“On the FCC’s Navajo County map — if there was one little corner of the census district that has broadband – the FCC map would show the whole census district has broadband. That’s not real.

“We need the federal government to say, OK, we’re going to help you with funding to get over the hump. You guys do this much. We’ll do that much — and we’ll have a partnership with private enterprise,” said O’Halleran.

That’s exactly the blueprint Navajo County’s now working to complete.

O’Halleran said it’s time to think big — with the economy struggling and the pandemic having underscored the challenges facing the nation.

“We’ve been putting a bandaid on here and a bandaid on over there — and it’s just never going to happen. We’ve got to solve the problem. The sooner we do that the better.”

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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