WHITE MOUNTAINS — High-speed broadband internet is on its way to the White Mountains, thanks to federal dollars and a state match that will connect school and libraries to broadband.
The resulting broadband infrastructure projects will eventually allow rural communities to piggyback on the high-speed cable connections that will be installed in schools and libraries.
In the future, some residential areas in rural communities will also be able to connect, according to county officials who spoke at a conference last week.
Navajo County Information Technology (IT) Director Ken Dewitt, and Ben Dugdale, Apache County IT director, provided a detailed update of the E-Rate program and the respective timeline for both counties. Their presentation was a segment of the 2018 Northeastern Arizona Economic Development Summit on Feb. 21-23 in Snowflake.
The E-Rate program is the first, most important step of the statewide broadband initiative. The E-Rate program is funded through the Federal Communications Commission, and has helped to fund technology in schools nationwide for the past 20 years.
The Arizona Broadband for Education Initiative began last year. The state put up $11 million, which will be matched dollar-for-dollar with federal money, for about $110 million in federal E-Rate funding to bring broadband to rural schools and libraries. E-Rate is a critical piece of the broadband initiative because it brings state and federal funding together to the tune of $8 million for the 2017-2018 budget cycle.
Many schools in the state’s most rural areas cannot access internet that is fast enough to support digital learning, according to the Arizona Department of Education (ADE). As a result, students in rural areas such as the White Mountains have lost opportunities that are commonplace for students living in urban and metro areas.
Those that applied by the Feb. 22 deadline are now eligible for Arizona Broadband Initiative E-Rate funding. In most cases, 100 percent of the cost to bring internet upgrades or high-speed broadband to the schools and libraries will be covered.
Navajo and Apache counties are on track with E-Rate and have already been approved, sent out their request for proposals (RFPs) and are either waiting for vendor bids or in the process of reviewing submitted bids.
Construction on fiber optic cable infrastructure will begin in some areas sometime this year.
The program is structured in a way that encourages the vendors to run fiber optic lines that are robust enough to carry above and beyond what is required for the schools and libraries. Although the lines will dead end at the schools and libraries, others will be able to tie into those lines. The schools and libraries will be able to work out agreements that allow others to tie-in to their broadband infrastructure.
There will be some cost associated with connecting, however, that cost will be significantly less expensive than paying or fiber optics installation from the ground up expenses the E-Rate program covers. High-speed fiber optic lines will be installed through the E-Rate projects.
The expectation is that town hall buildings, city offices, county government buildings, police departments and hospitals will be the first to take advantage of the newly installed broadband. Local businesses would follow suit. Eventually, high-speed broadband and Internet Service Provider (ISP) service should become accessible to the general public.
Apache County — first up
to the plate
According to Dugdale and Dewitt, Apache County is first in the pipeline and is approximately eight months ahead of Navajo County in the process. This means that funding has already been awarded by the E-Rate program.
All funding is being administered and managed by the federal Universal Service Fund, (USF), which is charged with the oversight for more than $4 billion in E-Rate funding.
The federal and state programs, as well as the USF, require that construction on these projects begin within 12 months of when funding is awarded. For this reason, Apache County RFP’s have already gone out and bids by multiple vendors have been received. The bids were reviewed and selections made by the Apache County schools and libraries consortium. Construction to bring in high-speed fiber optics should begin later this year.
“The current contract for Apache County called for the currently funded project to be completed by June 30, 2019,” Dugdale said. However, he also wanted to remind the public that “E-Rate has specific limitations of which we must operate.” Apache County is paving the way and working hard to minimize delays or unexpected variables involved in the project(s), according to Dugdale.
The order in which broadband is scheduled to “light up” or go live in Apache County is as follows: McNary, Round Valley, Vernon, St. Johns, Sanders and Red Mesa. Concho, the Alpine School District and Greer will be next.
Consortium follow with
Navajo County is a larger project, consisting of a larger school and library consortium, which includes Gila County.
“There are 51 designated locations within the Navajo-Gila County broadband consortium,” explains Dewitt.
“RFP’s for the Navajo-Gila County consortium went out at the end of December 2017 and closed on Feb. 12 of this year,” said Dewitt. The Navajo County schools and libraries consortium has reviewed the submitted bids and asked for a “best and final offer from all of the vendors,” added Dewitt.
The participating vendors have until March 12 of this year to submit their final bids for review. The consortium has until March 22, (10 days), to announce their decision on a vendor(s) for the broadband/wide-area network construction which must also be shared with the state and federal E-Rate program, as well as the USF.
If all goes as planned, Navajo-Gila County school and library broadband projects could start work this summer with an estimated completion date of July 2019.
Bridging the gap between Star Valley and Kohl’s Ranch
This Navajo-Gila County area also encompasses the eight- to 11-mile gap or “loop” between Star Valley and Kohl’s Ranch. “The goal is to eventually close that gap and create more redundancy,” said Dewitt.
Although the vendors aren’t required to run fiber optic line that specifically connects Star Valley and Kohl’s Ranch, an unintended result of the project may very well close the gap because the 51 designated locations include those areas.
Dewitt explained that certain areas will allow fiber optic lines to be installed underground. Conversely, there may be areas within the 51 designated locations that require above-ground lines. This will vary based on soil type, grade, accessibility and other factors specific to each county or region.
“Putting broadband infrastructure in place, more private internet service provider companies will be attracted to the area, which will increase access and reduce overall costs,” explains Milan Eaton, Arizona E-Rate director.
“High-speed broadband should provide faster upload and download speeds. This will, in turn, bring competition which will drive costs down making broadband more accessible to everyone in rural areas. The improved infrastructure should provide less interruption, more system resiliency and better overall connectivity,” Dewitt said.
For more information about E-Rate and the Arizona Broadband Initiative, watch the Arizona Corporation Commission YouTube video at the following address: https://youtu.be/Jovl93vHsJs.
Also visit the Arizona Department of Education at: https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/oii/nonpublic/erate.html.