APACHE COUNTY — “We’re getting close to starting the permitting for the high-speed broadband project,” says Apache County Schools Superintendent Barry Williams.
Williams has been pivotal in the $7.75 million project to bring high-speed broadband internet service to schools and libraries in Apache County. He has also worked closely with several other stakeholders including Alex Madrid, director of the Apache County Schools Business Consortium (ACSBC).
The Apache County project is a few steps ahead of the Navajo-Gila County Broadband Consortium, which is significantly larger in scope. However, both projects have a specific process to follow because they are funded by the state through Arizona Broadband for Education.
State monies have been matched dollar-for-dollar with federal funding to bring broadband fiber optic cable to rural schools and libraries. The beauty of this is that construction should be completed with no out-of-pocket cost to schools and libraries.
In addition, once the fiber optic line and infrastructure is in place, high-speed broadband should eventually allow residents of rural communities to piggyback onto the high-speed cable connections that will be installed in schools and libraries.
Phase one of the Apache County School Business Consortium broadband project began in the spring with a special permitting process for areas where the fiber optic lines and infrastructure are installed or replaced on tribal, state and public lands. The same applies for areas where cable will need to cross Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests.
The main hurdle right now, according to Williams, is forest closures which are necessary, but delay the permitting process. However, recent precipitation across the White Mountains could mean that restrictions will soon be lifted, allowing the permit process to resume.
“As soon as the forest opens, we hope to be getting our permitting through,” says Williams. “With the recent rain, Coconino National Forest is opening some areas so we are hopeful that Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests will soon follow,” he added.
The Apache County project requires that 174 miles of new fiber optic cable be be buried underground or run overhead. Ninety-four miles of the 174 will be on the Navajo Nation, which also requires special permitting.
The fiber optic installation path has been carefully mapped out to consider access to the easements, rights of ways, the geographic landscape and the permitting requirements. “The Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, the Ft. Apache Indian Reservation are the first critical links for the project,” says Williams.
“The contractor is doing some pre-conduit work at some of the schools, says Williams. “Also, some poles that were damaged by the 377 fire have already been repaired or replaced by Navopache Electric Cooperative which is good,” he added.”
For the Apache County project, St. John’s will serve as a major hub to all five school district offices and lateral connections from the district office to the consortium member schools. If all goes as planned, McNary, Round Valley, Vernon, St. Johns, Sanders and Red Mesa will be among the first to “light up.”
There are 51 designated locations within the Navajo-Gila County Broadband Consortium in schools and libraries within the two counties. An update on the project was given at the Real AZ Corridor economic development group, which met on Thursday. The Independent will provide information regarding that project in a future edition.