The Navajo County Board of Supervisors has agreed to spend $400,000 in federal pandemic relief funding on continuing to develop a master plan to improve broadband service throughout the county.
Navajo County enjoyed a nearly $22-million windfall this year as a result of several pandemic relief packages approved by Congress.
A big chunk of that money went to the public health department to cope with the impact of the pandemic — including a mass vaccination program. The vaccination effort so far has yielded only modest results — with a little more than a third of the non-reservation population vaccinated.
The bulk of the money from the federal pandemic relief measures went into the county’s reserve funds, leaving the chronically financially-strapped county with the most comfortable reserve fund in years.
So the supervisors had plenty of unallocated money to shift to a contract with the Magellan Group, a consulting firm drawing up a master plan to improve the region’s slow, outage prone broadband system. Magellan also has a contract to design a much improved broadband system on the Navajo Reservation, which has received some $1.8 billion in pandemic relief funding.
Huge portions of the Navajo Reservation have no broadband service at all. Many areas also lack electricity and drinking water systems.
The Navajo Nation had some of the highest infection rates in the nation early in the pandemic and suffered a high death rate from the virus, since many residents have risk factors that make COVID-19 more lethal — including diabetes. However, the Navajo Nation now has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, with somewhere between 70 and 90% fully vaccinated.
Navajo County economic development officials say improving broadband both on the reservations and throughout the White Mountains remains the key to future growth.
The pandemic accelerated changes in the role of the Internet on everything from medicine to education. Online shopping increased dramatically during the pandemic — and so did the reliance of schools on the Internet. The big increase in telecommuting and people working from home offers rural areas big new opportunities as well, said economic development planners.
The region has long suffered from its position at the end of an aging, dead-end fiberoptic cable that runs from Phoenix, through Globe and up into the White Mountains. Another line runs from Phoenix up through Camp Verde and on up to I-40. Ultimately, the county wants to connect the line along I-40 at Winslow to the other line coming into the region through Show Low. Connecting those two lines will create a loop, which will boost speeds and largely eliminate long outages.
The Magellan Contract must essentially provide the planning and technical specifications for that broadband backbone, plus specifications for connecting each of the scattered communities in the region to the system.
Once the system’s designed, the county will be in a much better position to snag state and federal infrastructure grants and loans to complete the system — and extend it to as many communities as possible. The already enacted federal pandemic relief programs have provided billions to improve broadband — particularly in rural areas.
Congress is currently considering additional big infrastructure bills. The bills could provides as much as $2 trillion over a period of years for infrastructure projects nationally — including a lot of money for rural broadband systems.