HOLBROOK — Arizona Public Service officials this week at a meeting of the Navajo County Board of Supervisors unveiled plans to string a high-speed, high-capacity broadband fiber-optic cable on its transmission lines all the way from Phoenix to the Cholla Power Plant.
APS says it will string the trunk line on existing transmission towers from Phoenix to Payson within the year and continue the line on up to Cholla within two years. The utility company is undertaking the project mostly to provide its own internet system for communications and control. But while they’re stringing line from one giant transmission tower to the next by helicopter, they’ll put enough fiber atop those towers to serve the needs of the entire region.
In theory, the line will make possible reliable, high-speed internet to rival anything in the country. The line could not only prevent the frequent, sometimes dangerous outages caused by the existing, one-line system, but open the door to an expansion of the internet-dependent economy expected to become increasingly dominant.
County Supervisor Steve Williams said “this is a significant project for the region. I’m excited about the possibilities that will come for economic growth and the quality of life for businesses and people here, so I really appreciate APS for its partnership on this. It’s a big deal.”
“We’ve done regional economic studies,” said Navajo County Supervisors Board Chairman Dawnafe Whitesinger, “and they all talk about the need for broadband to be able to market to large businesses and organizations that already exist within the county, like schools and hospitals.”
County Manager Glenn Kephart commented, “this is very exciting. We’ve been hoping for and working to get this for years.”
Ultimately, the system could enable places like Show Low and Pinetop to attract internet-dependent businesses, eager to get out of the expensive, congested urban centers, but still needing reliable, blazing fast internet. Moreover, schools and hospitals can benefit.
There’s just one catch.
No one will actually get a signal unless some other company – like Sparklight (formerly Cable One), Century Link, Sudden Link, Verizon, T-Mobile or any number of other providers prove willing to pay a monthly fee for access.
“So you create the trunk line – or the freeway,” said Kephart, “what happens next as far as your expectations of how this will benefit our actual business community, if you’re not actually connecting those businesses to the trunk line?”
“The best I can explain it,” said Neil Traver, APS division manger, “is that we’re going to build the Interstate – which has the capacity to backhaul everything back to Phoenix where the internet lives in big server farms. We’re building the main infrastructure – so Verizon, Sparklight, the hospitals – anyone who wants to use the space we’re building – can lease the excess capacity we don’t need and they can use for dedicated lines.”
APS will essentially pay for the “middle mile” of the internet, but other companies will have to pay for the “last mile,” which brings the signal to homes and businesses.
He said the line will reach Payson next year. Sparklight has struck a deal with the MHA Foundation in Payson to connect its existing line in Heber to Payson, hopefully by the end of the year. If Sparklight agrees to connect to the APS line from Phoenix once it reaches Payson, most of the White Mountains would have a redundant internet connection. That means a cut anywhere along the existing line that comes from Phoenix by another, roundabout route would no longer sever service to the region. The higher-capacity APS line would also provide plenty of bandwidth for growth without sacrificing speed.
“So the City of Show Low and Forest Lakes will have the back connection all the way to Phoenix,” said Traver. “This will enable the next leap, which is into the 5G cell phone world. Let’s say you guys want to make the connection at the Navajo County complex more reliable, you would need to work with whoever provides the service now and make sure that they’re connecting with APS when they get to Cholla – so you’re connected to that ring.”
APS IT Senior Manager Dominic Pagliuca said the line would likely have plenty of capacity to meet the needs of the region for the next 30 years or more.
Supervisor Lee Jack asked whether the new trunk line will improve connections on the sprawling Navajo or Hope reservations.
Pagliuca said the APS line won’t extend north of I-40. However, the substantial network of existing cable lines on both reservations could still connect to the APS.
“We have nothing north of I-40,” said, Pagliuca. “But we can probably connect our system to their system. Anything on the Navajo Reservation or the Hopi Reservation would be something different, but there’s quite a bit of fiber on the reservation.”
After the meeting, Pagliuca said the company hasn’t yet figured out what it might charge for access to its line for either cell phone companies or retail Internet providers like Sudden Link.
The APS announcement also adds another level of complexity to the federally funded E-Rate program, which provides high-speed, reliable Internet connections to libraries and schools.
Apache County has received millions in E-rate grants and has already improved connections for many rural schools. Presumably, the APS trunk line will increase speed and reliability – and perhaps E-rate will pay the cost of the connection.
Gila County was recently awarded millions of E-rate dollars to improve the connection to its schools and libraries. The grant was supposed to improve the connection to Phoenix to create redundancy, so the line won’t go down as a result of a single cut along the way. Presumably an APS-funded trunk line from Phoenix would make those E-rate dollars go much further.
Navajo County has so far lagged in getting E-rate grants, partly because a three-county consortium fell apart a year ago due to allegations of irregularities in the bidding process. Navajo County schools have appealed the denial of funding and missed the last cycle of funding.
Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org