Stimulus funds to bring high-speed Internet to Navajos

Southeast Utah » Some of the country's most depressed areas will now have access to the high-tech service.
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Federal stimulus money will be used to string fiber optic cables through the Navajo Nation, bringing some of the nation's most depressed areas into the Internet age after years of snafus have left most Navajos without a Web connection.

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said Thursday that the government would chip in $33 million, matched with $14 million from the tribe's utility company, to bring high-speed broadband to the reservation, including parts of southeastern Utah.

"This investment is absolutely essential for the health and the wealth of the Navajo nation," Locke said. "Too many people are stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide."

In many places on the reservation, homes are without telephone service, and sometimes electricity. A few chapter houses have dial-up Internet connections but far less fast than high-speed link-ups.

There are about 8,000 Navajos in Utah, mostly centered in the Four Corners area of the state. Ken Maryboy, a San Juan County commissioner who represents three Navajo chapters, said the fiber optics would greatly help the Navajos who now live without many links to the outside world.

"I think it's the greatest thing that's happened," Maryboy said. "We are in dire need in communication. With Utah Navajos, there's no such thing as fiber optics."

Rep. Jim Matheson, a Utah Democrat who supported the Recovery Act, said the stimulus funds invested in this project would bring dividends for years in the form of additional jobs and better education, as well as an initial bump in construction work.

"There could be no place more deserving than the Navajo reservation for this type of program," Matheson said.

It has been a constant struggle to get Internet service to the vast, wide-open expanses of the reservation amid allegations of inside dealings now being investigated. The Associated Press reported late last year that a special prosecutor was being appointed to probe the tribe's relationship with OnSat, a Utah-based satellite Internet company.

The nation, according to the AP, signed a contract with OnSat in 2001 for $1.9 million to provide Internet access to all of its 110 chapters but didn't abide by its competitive bidding rules. The price tag zoomed to $32 million by January 2006. A separate report by the Gallup Independent said the tribe was billed for $650,000 in questionable and improper payments.

The stimulus grant is unrelated to that effort to provide Internet service, however.