APACHE COUNTY — On January 10, The Arizona Commerce Authority announced the awards for the Arizona Rural Broadband Development Grant (AZRBDG), and three White Mountain communities made the cut: the city of St. Johns and Springerville and Eagar.
The AZRBDG awards are part of a $3 million-dollar funding effort included in the Arizona state FY 2020 budget to help rural areas increase their broadband capabilities. The grants were awarded based on two categories: development grants for those projects that were “shovel-ready,” and planning grants for those who are still studying the best way to bring internet to homes in their communities. St. Johns and Round Valley won planning grants, as both areas are still trying to work out how best to bridge that “last mile” between existing fiber lines in the region and their residents. Each awardee will receive $50,000, with a $5,000 match necessary to secure the grant.
The grants were only for cities and towns with less than 150,000 population that are not part of a larger metro area and to counties with fewer than 750,000 residents.
Springerville and Eagar
The awardee listed for the AZRBDG grant is the Town of Springerville — but the grant application was a joint effort between both Eagar and Springerville. The grant application was written by Eagar staff, but the town of Springerville will handle management of the grant and was the name used for the application. As well as sharing in the planning funds, both towns will also share in the grant’s cost: each town will pay half — $2,500 — of the $5,000 total for the grant match.
“We recognize (the lack of broadband service) is an economic development stumbling block where we currently are, so we want to work together,” Joe Jarvis, the town manager of Springerville, said of the joint venture during the October 2019 town council meeting and vote. Each town voted unanimously in favor of the measure during their respective council meetings.
“I’m excited that the towns of Eagar and Springerville are working together on a project that can make a positive impact for all of our citizens, and potentially people outside of our town limits,” Jarvis said in an interview after the awards were announced. “With this grant, the towns will be able to figure out the logistics of connecting to available resources.”
The next step for the project is to put out bids for contractors to work on feasibility studies, but the towns are open to working cooperatively with other communities who may be negotiating with contractors who are already in the area. As St. Johns, Apache County, and other entities continue work on their broadband projects, it is likely that there may be contractors already interested or coming into the area.
Springerville and Eagar plan to continue their joint efforts in the future when applying for construction grants from the state, once the feasibility studies are completed to bring internet to the homes and businesses of Round Valley residents.
St. Johns is excited to have won their AZRBDG award to begin their feasibility studies for broadband internet. The funds are set to arrive in “30 to 60 days,” and the city is eager to get started on creating a plan of attack to address the lack of broadband service.
Yelton and Associates, LLC, which has been working as a consultant with the city on other economic development projects over the last several months, assisted the city with putting in for the grant and even put up funds for the required match. “The grant was awarded, predicated on a match accepted through Yelton and Associates,” Christine Chiesl, the Community Development director for St. Johns, confirmed.
Goals listed within the application include not only how to best serve households and businesses, but also to develop a solid “timeline for completion of the infrastructure improvements.” The city recognizes that internet is a vital component to growth that the area needs sooner rather than later, especially in light of the announced plant closure of the Coronado Generating Station in 2032.
“We’re doing the feasibility study, but in the meantime, we’re already looking at putting things in place that can help offset the dilemma of people not having internet down here,” Chris Chiesl said.
While waiting to see if they would be awarded funds from the AZRFBDG program, the city had already begun dialogue with the AZ Block Chain initiative on solutions that could help St. Johns with its goal in connecting residents. The AZ Block Chain initiative has several programs that address underserved communities who need better technology resources. One of AZ Block Chain’s projects, named Project Phoenix, focuses on the development of home-grown mesh networks to help serve residents that lack access to internet and hardware.
The city has also begun talks with a company out of Sweden called Forsway, which is planning pilot projects for satellite internet in areas of Apache County in the near future. According to Forsway’s website, their mission is to create “scalable” satellite broadband solutions for “underserved markets,” and they offer hybrid solutions, combining satellite with terrestrial broadband sources such as fiber internet lines.
All winners of the AZ Rural Broadband Development grants must complete their projects within two years of the award date.
Amber Shepard is a local journalist covering municipal governments and other Apache County topics.