Internet

WHITE MOUNTAINS – After years of negotiations and struggle, Sparklight has announced a plan to spend $29 million improving the now-crucial broadband connection in Gila County, which will have the additional benefit of improving internet reliability in the White Mountains.

This week, Sparklight announced plans to provide high speed, high-capacity broadband access to schools and libraries throughout the region.

The project will include a fiber network from Payson to Show Low, where Sparklight will utilize the existing network which runs between Show Low and Winslow. This will potentially provide an internet loop that will reduce sometimes debilitating internet outages in the White Mountains. Sparklight is already the major internet provider in Show Low. However, the project will not provide such a reliability-boosting loop in Rim Country, unless other internet providers decide to plug into the new line.

Payson will get a connection through Heber within months, as part of the fiber backbone project which includes an 84-mile build from Show Low to Payson, thanks to a $2 million investment by the MHA Foundation, said Ken Conner, Sparklight’s director of market development.

The bulk of the remaining $27 million will come from the federal governments e-rate program to improve internet connections for schools and libraries.

The increased speed and capacity comes just in time for school districts, struggling to make a big leap forward in distance learning in the midst of the pandemic.

“We have witnessed firsthand just how critical a reliable and robust connection to the internet has become during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Chris Boone, vice president of business services for Sparklight. “We thank the multiple partners and agencies that have helped us make this project a reality.”

Sparklight officials said “schools and libraries will have the bandwidth needed to support the usage demand caused by online curriculum.”

The Gila County School and Library project consists of 200 miles of fiber network connecting to 21 locations, including those in Pine, Tonto Basin, Young, Winkelman and Peridot. In addition, the project connecting Show Low to Payson is 84 miles and inside the town of Payson another 10 miles for the ePON network, for a grand total of nearly 300 miles of fiber network. The ePON network will provide data services of up to “5 gigabits per second for both uploads and download speeds,” comparable to the fastest systems in the biggest cities. However, connections to homes and businesses offered by other companies connected to the new line might not fully support those speeds. The three projects will rely on the $2 million from the MHA Foundation, $1 million from the Arizona Commerce Authority, $2 million from the state of Arizona and $18 million from the federal E-Rate program.

The $29 million project would connect the existing Sparklight line that dead ends in Heber to the existing line in Winslow. Conner confirmed that stretch of new fiber will greatly reduce the odds of an outage in Navajo and Apache Counties due to a cut along the fiber.

Economic development officials throughout the region have said providing high-speed, reliable, high-capacity internet service remains key to luring a whole new generation of internet dependent businesses. The pandemic also graphically illustrated schools’ need for internet that can handle online classes, Zoom conferences and distance learning.

In the email exchange, Conner indicated that the plan at this time does not include an additional fiber network connecting Payson to Phoenix.

However, the Arizona Department of Transportation this week announced plans to seek partners to lay high-speed internet connections along major highways. This could provide a feed for real-time traffic information along the highway. This could ultimately provide a way to add another connection between the White Mountains, Rim Country and Phoenix – providing the long-sought redundancy. The federal government has made billions of dollars available to boost internet connections in rural areas – especially in the wake of the pandemic. Gov. Doug Ducey has also launched a multi-million-dollar effort in Arizona.

Sparklight, formerly Cable One, has 900,000 customers in 21 states and was founded 34 years ago.

The federal E-rate money will only pay for improved service for schools and libraries. If Sparklight wants to build in extra capacity for homes or businesses, it can upgrade the fiber at its own cost. Sparklight can reportedly add business customers right along the path of the new fiber.

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

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