A chapter house is a community meeting hall on the Navajo Nation. It’s also where many Navajos living on the reservation must go to get online.
“I come here two to ten times a week,” says Cody, a student at Northern Arizona University. “I come here for social reasons, Facebook, email, and for school reasons.”
When the dirt roads are muddy or snowy, it can take Cody 25 minutes to drive two miles from his house to the chapter house to check his email.
But a $32 million federal stimulus grant is about to change that.
Over the next year, Cody and others on the Navajo Nation will be able to get online from their homes.
The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA) has begun installing an ultra-fast 4G network on the Navajo Nation that will be on par with America’s biggest cities. This will create a web of wireless coverage over 15,000 square miles.
The project will provide Internet and cell phone coverage to more than 135,000 people. That’s nearly 80 percent of the reservation’s population in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.
“From a Third World communications platform that we have today, we’re going from that to fourth generation,” says Walter Haase, general manager of NTUA. “Some of the very big communities like Chicago and New York are just beginning to deploy this. So we’re leapfrogging a lot of communities.”
The tribally owned utility is spending nearly $14 million on the project, which will include 550 miles of fiber-optic lines. Tribal utility crews are also deploying 49 microwave links and 40 LTE, fourth generation base stations on utility towers. The technology will allow customers to connect wirelessly to the broadband from their home computers or mobile devices.
Cody hopes the network will attract jobs to the Navajo Nation where the unemployment rate is above 50 percent. Most people drive long distances to work, often off the reservation.
That’s what Cody does. The father of three provides for his family by flipping burgers at a restaurant 30 miles away in Winslow.
But he has big dreams.
Recently, he applied for a grant for a solar energy project to benefit his hometown of Leupp, 45 miles northeast of Flagstaff.
“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 NTUA general manager Walter Haase was thinking of when he pushed for the multi-million dollar stimulus package. Haase says 4G will create economic opportunities for young Navajos who don’t want to move away from their families and their culture.
“There’s a huge creativity opportunity,” Haase says. “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.”
The ultra-fast connection speeds could also make the Navajo Nation an attractive place to open data-processing businesses in fields such as medical-record keeping, Haase says.
He hopes a data center in Shiprock, N.M., that will be funded by the stimulus grant will bring jobs to the region, which is among the poorest in the nation.
“That will bring economic opportunities for entrepreneurs to co-locate within that data center and create a whole array of products,” Haase says.
4G will also offer unprecedented educational opportunities. Students will be able to attend college online rather than moving away from home or driving hours a day.
“A lot of students here in our little town would like that,” says Cody, who drives more than an hour from Leupp to NAU.
The 4G-network will also give grade-school students new learning opportunities. They will be able to take Navajo language classes from teachers at other schools or to take advanced-placement classes. The stimulus grant will also be used to buy 2,500 laptops for students on the Navajo Nation.
“A lot of our children are on school buses an hour and a half each way to school,” Haase says. “When the system is deployed, if they have a mobile device inside a computer, they’ll be able to spend time on a school bus online doing their homework.”
The implications for health care are also huge, Haase says. For instance, nurses will be able to update patient charts during home visits, rather than returning to the office to input data.
In another example, “a doctor could be monitoring a patient’s vital signs directly from his phone and could be alerted if a person goes into cardiac arrest,” Haase explains.
Using telemedicine, doctors on the Navajo Nation will be able to work with specialists at hospitals in Phoenix or Albuquerque, foregoing the time and expense of transporting patients hours away.
The 4G network will also improve public safety on the reservation, where patchy cell phone and radio coverage present life and death problems every day.
Currently, only about 40 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 and call for help.
Many people do have cell phones but they often live miles from any cell phone towers, so the phones don’t work.
“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,” Haase says.
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.
All over the 27,000 square mile reservation, police officers also are in danger because of dead zones — spots where they have no radio or cell phone contact with each other or their dispatcher.
“That is very hazardous and risky, if you don’t have communication with your dispatcher, especially if you’re in a situation with multiple suspects,” says Navajo Police Lt. Emerson Lee.
He says the network will save lives, protect officers and improve efficiency because officers will be able to write reports on their laptops in the field.
NTUA recently completed its first phase of fiber optic installation between Shiprock, N.M., and Window Rock, Ariz.
Haase hopes to complete the entire project, bringing service to the western Navajo Nation, by March 2013.
Ultra-fast 4G on the Horizon
By Shelley Smithson
Four seconds. That’s how long it will take Northern Arizonans to download their favorite songs using new 4G-technology.
Feature-length movies will download to their phones or mobile tablets in just a couple of minutes.
And business professionals in the region could chat in real time with associates across the world with uninterrupted video streaming.
When it arrives in Northern Arizona, the next generation of wireless technology will operate on a platform called LTE, or long-term evolution, which will be 10 times faster than 3G.
So when will this ultra-fast technology arrive in Northern Arizona?
The two big mobile carriers won’t give an exact date, but 2013 looks like a good bet.
“We haven’t yet announced when 4G LTE will launch in Northern Arizona, but I can share that our plans are to more than double the number of 4G LTE markets by the end of 2012,” said Verizon Wireless spokesperson Jenny Weaver. “Full nationwide deployment is expected by 2013.”
That would include Northern Arizona, Weaver says.
Currently, AT&T offers customers 4G on an HSPA+ platform, which is four times faster than 3G. HSPA+ stands for Evolved High Speed Packet Access.
AT&T plans to continue its roll out of 4G LTE in select markets through 2013, but AT&T spokesman Scott Huscher could not say if one of those markets will be Northern Arizona.
Verizon Wireless and AT&T have already deployed 4G LTE in large cities around the United States, including Phoenix. FBN