Feds to invest $32.2 million in broadband Internet access on sprawling Indian reservation

By Susan Montoya Bryan, AP
Thursday, March 25, 2010

Grant to fund high-speed Internet on Navajo Nation

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The federal government is investing more than $32 million in stimulus funds to help the nation’s largest American Indian reservation, the Navajo Nation, build a high-speed Internet highway that will connect thousands of homes and businesses across the sprawling reservation.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke announced the grant Thursday, saying Navajo communities in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah will benefit from 550 miles of new fiber optic cables and 59 new or modified microwave towers that will be capable of blanketing 15,000 square miles.

Locke said during a conference call with Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. and congressmen from New Mexico and Utah that 60 percent of residents on the reservation lack basic telephone service and many Navajo communities have unemployment levels that exceed 40 percent.

“Today, too many people in Navajo Nation are struck on the wrong side of the digital divide, and when you don’t have regular access to high-speed Internet, you don’t have access to all the educational, business and employment opportunities that high-speed Internet provides,” Locke said.

The grant will help fix “this glaring inequality,” he said.

The funding awarded to the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority was among $63 million in federal investments announced by Locke. All of the money is aimed at increasing broadband access in remote or underserved communities in more than a dozen states.

In Illinois, the city of Chicago received $7 million to spur economic development in a handful of disadvantaged neighborhoods with a broadband awareness and adoption program that will include computers and training opportunities for more than 11,000 residents.

Nearly $4 million will go toward creating a dozen new public computer centers in several other states.

Competition for the grants was fierce, Locke said. The Commerce Department’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program received more than 1,800 applications proposing projects totaling nearly $19 billion during the first funding round.

The Navajo project, expected to be complete in three years, will be spearheaded by the tribe’s utility authority. The agency is providing nearly $14 million in matching funds.

Once the infrastructure is in place, officials say affordable broadband service will be accessible to 30,000 homes, 1,000 businesses and 1,100 community institutions across the Navajo Nation.

The network will also connect 49 chapter houses, which serve as community centers for the Navajos.

“Anyone who has spent time on the Navajo reservation has the best appreciation of how remote it is, the distances between people and also the conditions on the reservation in terms of challenges the people face. … I think there could be no place more deserving than the Navajo reservation for this type of program,” said Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah.

Members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation agreed. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said he has spent much time on the Navajo reservation and many families live in Third World conditions.

“I truly believe this award will help change these circumstances,” he said.

Federal officials said the broadband network will bring online classes to the Navajos as well as telemedicine and global exposure for small businesses.

President Shirley said some have suggested that the Navajo Nation is 30 years behind the times, and he wouldn’t disagree. He pointed to the lack of running water, electricity, telephone service and wastewater services in some parts of the reservation.

“This infusion of new capital is going to bring us a long way toward helping us to catch up to the mainstream,” he said.

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