July 25, 2009

Bridging the Digital Divide on the Navajo Reservation


Navajo Technical College faculty members Tom Davis and Mark Trebian are working on a major feat: providing Internet access to communities on the Navajo Nation, some of which don’t even have running water.

Davis and Trebian are trying to expand their broadband access project, “Internet to the Hogan,” off the Crownpoint campus to all the reservation’s chapter houses — which can be compared to city halls.

They were among hundreds of people attending a workshop Thursday in Albuquerque presented by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utility Service. It was aimed at helping rural and minority communities apply for grants under the federal stimulus program to expand broadband access and services.

$7.2 billion to expand broadband access in underserved communities

Colleges, schools, telephone and utility companies and community representatives dug into sessions dealing with how to apply for grants, hoping to receive a portion of some $7.2 billion to expand broadband access in underserved communities.

Expanded Internet access could provide much-needed technology to schools and medical clinics, create jobs and provide an economic boost for remote areas, Davis said.

We need to end the digital divide on reservations.

“We need to end the digital divide. New wealth is generated at the very edge of technology, and with the Navajo Nation’s unemployment rate at almost 60 percent, we need new wealth,” he said. “We’re trying to launch high-bandwidth technology with significant economic development to improve the economic lives for Navajo people.”

It’s more costly to build broadband infrastructure in remote locations, USDA official Jessica Zufolo said.

“Part of what the recovery act is trying to do is reach these consumers, reach these businesses that really want to be a part of the economy,” she said.

Trebian said he sees the issue not as urban or rural, but simply a matter of the United States staying ahead in technology.

Internet technology can bring jobs to the reservation.

“Geography is not as important as it used to be. Rural or urban, our way of life will wither away if we don’t make investments like this. We just need to also enable the rural population to be technologically competitive,” he said.

David Villano, USDA Rural Development’s assistant administrator for telecommunications, said rural areas had difficulty making their case for loans in the past.

“You can’t make a business case in many of these communities. They’re just rural, too rural or too isolated, and there are not enough customers to support a business plan, so we don’t get the applications from some of those areas,” Villano said.

The recovery act allows officials to go after rural communities that have been unable to apply for a loan, he said.

Broadband access can serve as an economic driver for rural areas, said Anna Gomez, the Commerce Department’s deputy assistant secretary for communications and information.

“It permits people in rural communities to engage in commerce elsewhere. We hear a lot about ranchers who are able to auction their cattle via video through their broadband services,” she said.

Gregg Williams, director of economic development for the Eastern Plains Council of Governments in Clovis, said getting broadband access can help bring his community and others “into the 21st century.”

“I think the government has done a really good job to help rural communities get the funds they need,” Williams said.

Bill Manns, who runs a Santa Fe publishing company, said he’d like to expand broadband access into the state’s Galisteo Basin, but he remains skeptical of the process.

“These larger outfits have been working on this for a while, but we don’t have enough of a chance to pull people together where we can find them,” Manns said.

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