RIM COUNTRY & WHITE MOUNTAINS — Currently, Arizona’s government does not provide oversight of commercial broadband companies that provide crucial internet service statewide.
However, Arizona also recognizes broadband as a backbone infrastructure needed for jobs, public safety, business, health and communication.
So, where does that leave rural communities like Rim Country and the White Mountains that are seeking better broadband infrastructure?
Out in the cold.
That helps explain the lack of response when the region repeatedly suffered internet and related cell phone outages that cost thousands of dollars in lost business, but more importantly, put people at risk.
In Rim Country, one outage contributed to the death of a resident. Because cell phone providers use the one broadband line coming into town, no one could call an ambulance after his motorcycle hit an elk.
The resident died waiting for someone to drive to the hospital to find an ambulance.
The Arizona Corporation Commission regulates providers of crucial services like water and electricity, but has no authority over broadband.
“The commission does not regulate broadband when it is used to provide internet access,” said Holly Ward, communications director for the ACC.
The ACC can provide oversight if “some services (are) provided over broadband (like voice-over-internet protocol) and may be regulated by the commission,” said Ward.
In the case of CenturyLink, the trunk line provider bringing internet from the network core to Rim Country, the ACC has no power to compel the company to improve broadband service. However, that also means the company has no protection from competitors who bring another broadband line to town.
“CenturyLink is the incumbent provider, but most telecommunications markets in the state are competitive now,” said Ward. “Competitive carriers and wireless providers may ... serve the state now since the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.”
Recognizing the Wild West conditions on broadband and spurred by the horrors of the outages, several Rim Country groups have been working for the past five years to find a solution. For a while, it looked like the area would remain at the whims of corporations. Members of the Rim Country Broadband Consortium, a public-private partnership, say providers wanted millions of dollars up front, with no guarantee the outages would end.
Then Cable One stepped up.
“Cable One is the only broadband provider who would work with us,” said members of the consortium.
Cable One now sits poised to connect a line from the network cores running along Interstates 40 and 10 from Show Low to Phoenix.
The new cable would radically increase the capacity of broadband in both Rim Country and the White Mountains, but more importantly, the line would provide a loop of service not vulnerable to outages.
Currently, Payson and Show Low each sit at the end of a spur line. Cable One connects the White Mountains to the Interstate 40 network core, but stops at Show Low.
CenturyLink provides a spur line to Rim Country from Cottonwood. Maps of the state’s broadband lines show CenturyLink’s line runs along Highway 17 connecting Flagstaff to a loop, but not Rim Country.
If either of these spur lines is cut, service comes to a standstill.
The new line proposed to create a loop between Show Low, Payson and Phoenix required creative financing and infinite patience to come about, but members of the Rim Country Broadband Consortium have made the following commitments:
• The MHA Foundation paid $2 million for Cable One to come to Payson from Show Low.
• Cable One has offered to pay for some of the costs.
• E-rate will pay for spurs to go to schools and libraries in Gila, Apache and Navajo counties.
• Gila County has $2.5 million available to invest in broadband in its budget.
• The Town of Payson has agreed to pay $90,000 annually for 10 years.
• The Arizona Commerce Authority has $3 million to help with broadband in the state.
The Independent reached out to Apache County Manager Ryan Patterson to find out if county officials were aware of the collaborative effort to install new line that would close the loop between Show Low, Payson and Phoenix.
Although Apache County is the front-runner when it comes to E-Rate broadband projects, Patterson did not appear to be aware of the initiative.
Navajo County, however, was aware of the project but is unaware of specific funding details, according to Assistant County Manager and Economic/Workforce Development Director Paul Watson in an email to the Independent on July 1.
“I am aware that Sparklight (formerly Cable One) has announced plans to connect their fiber link from Forest Lakes on into Payson,” writes Watson. “I know that they have discussed a phase II to the project that would continue the link down to Phoenix.”
“I am aware of the $3 million that Arizona Commerce Authority has received in this year’s State Budget for rural broadband support. Navajo County is not contributing to the project you are referring to, at least not that I am aware of,” Watson adds.
Watson is aware of the proposal to bring new fiber from Phoenix to Payson and says it “ ... will greatly enhance the capacity and resiliency of the network in this area.”
Increasing the capacity and reliability of broadband in Rim Country and the White Mountains will help Arizona realize Gov. Doug Ducey’s top five priorities: educational excellence; a 21st century economy; protecting communities; fiscal responsibility; and happy, healthy citizens.
State officials say construction on new E-rate connections will start in July. MHA officials say their contract with Cable One requires the company to complete the link from Show Low through Forest Lakes to Payson by the end of the year.
Consortium officials confirm the line from Payson to Phoenix will happen with support from state, county and local governments, despite the lack of government oversight.
Rim Country and the White Mountains will benefit from guys who would have worn white hats in the Wild West.
WMI reporter Laura Singleton contributed to this story.