KNAU and Arizona News
Mon October 24, 2011
4G network creates opportunities on Navajo Nation
By Shelley Smithson
Dilkon, AZ – Navajo Nation Police Lt. Emerson Lee drives his four-wheel drive patrol truck along Indian Route 15. Dormant volcanoes and granite buttes cast long shadows against the red dirt and squatty pine trees.
Lt Lee is descending into a valley on the highway -- one of the many dead zones on the Navajo Nation. Dead zones are spots where officers have no radio or cell phone contact with each other or their dispatcher.
Lt. Lee says he hates dead zones.
"That is very hazardous and risky, if you don't have no communication with your dispatcher, especially if you're in a situation with multiple suspects," Lee says.
Patchy cell phone coverage -- and poor communication services, in general -- present life and death problems every day on the vast reservation, which spans across northern Arizona, southern Utah and northwestern New Mexico.
But a $32 million federal stimulus grant is about to change that.
The Navajo Nation will soon have a 4G network on par with America's biggest cities. This will create a web of wireless coverage over 15,000 square miles.
The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority is also spending nearly $14 million on the project, which will include 550 miles of fiber optic lines. Tribal utility crews will also deploy 49 microwave links and 40 LTE, 4th generation base stations on utility towers.
The technology will allow customers to connect wirelessly to the broadband. It will also greatly improve cell phone coverage.
Currently, only about 60 percent of people on the Navajo Nation have landline phones.
So if their house is being robbed or they're having a heart attack, they can't just pick up the phone. Many Navajos do have cell phones but often live miles from any cell phone towers, so the phones don't work. It's not unusual to hear stories of someone who has died because they couldn't get a cell phone signal to call for help.
"What it means is somebody has to get in a car in an emergency and get to a cell phone site or they need to drive to a neighbor's house who does have a phone," says Walter Haase, the general manager of the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority and the man behind the $32 million federal grant that will bring 4G to Navajo country.
Haase lobbied hard to secure the stimulus money for the region. He says the project will provide Internet and cell phone coverage to more than 135,000 people. That's nearly 80 percent of the population.
"From a third world communications platform that we have today, we're going from that to 4th generation," Haase says.
The entire project will be up and running by early 2013, he says.
Still some people wonder if the quick transition will lead to problems.
Navajo Police Officer Arlinda Yesslith worries that child pornography, identify theft and online fraud could increase.
"Every time some technology is introduced to the reservation, somebody has a better hand of using it to their advantage, to where somebody is going to be a victim," Yesslith says.
For many on the reservation however, the new technology represents opportunity.
Thirty-two year old Nelson Cody is typing on his laptop at the chapter house in Leupp, Arizona. A chapter house is a community meeting hall. It's also where Navajos come now to get online.
"I come here two to ten times a week. I come here for social reasons, Facebook, email, for school reasons," says Cody.
Cody is a student at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, an hour and a half away. He says with 4G young people could go to school online rather than leaving home.
"A lot of students here in our little town would like that," he says.
Cody hopes the network will also attract jobs to the Navajo Nation where the unemployment rate is 50 percent. Most people drive long distances to work because there aren't many jobs here.
That's what Cody does. He's a father of two and right now, he provides for them by flipping burgers at a restaurant 30 miles away.
But he has big dreams. Today, he is emailing a grant application for a solar energy project.
"We have a sports complex outside here about half a mile from the chapter house and it has no lighting," Cody explains. "So I wanted to try to get outdoor solar lighting."
Cody hopes to someday start a solar energy business on the reservation, where 18,000 homes lack electricity.
It's these sorts of dreams that Walter Haase was thinking of when he pushed for the multi-million dollar stimulus package. He says 4G will create economic opportunities for young Navajos who don't want to move away from their families and their culture.
"By having these platforms available to these young folks, it increases the opportunity for them to just dream, and who knows what they'll create after they dream," Haase says.