Courtesy NTUA
Two NTUA electric line men providing general maintenance in the northwestern part of the 27,000 square mile Navajo Nation.

Tribal Utility Bringing Broadband Wireless to Navajo Rez With $32M Federal Grant


Thanks to a $32 million grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's (NTIA) Broadband Technology Opportunities Program to the Navajo Tribal  Utility Authority, residents of the 27,000 square-mile Navajo Reservation will soon have access to a modern wireless communications system.

In the Four Corners area home to the Navajo Nation, many roads have never been paved, many buildings don't have formal postal addresses, and thousands of families remain cut off from the electrical grid, explains Jean Rice, a NTIA Program Officer at the Department of Commerce in the White House blog "Narrowing the Digital Divide in the Navajo Nation." Roughly 60 percent of homes don't have landline telephone service. Emergency systems often fail to identify a caller's location. High-speed wireless internet has been unavailable to the majority of residents.

Now the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority will provide residents with 4G LTE wireless broadband, largely funded by the federal government. Working with Commnet, the Authority will offer wireless voice and data services at speeds of up to three megabits per second through mobile or fixed wireless service. The Authority will additionally connect local schools, hospitals and other actor institutions, including 49 tribal "chapter houses" at speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second.

The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, established in 1959 as a basic utility services, is today one of the largest tribally owned and operated utilities. It provides sewage, electricity, natural gas, solar power and communications services—and now 4G LTE wireless broadband.

Among the numerous advantages of adding wireless broadband to the sprawling, remote reservation, Walter Haase, general manager of the Authority, points to creating the opportunity for medical specialists to consult electronically with patients who may lack transportation to facilities. Teachers will be able to live-stream video and other educational resources. College students can take online classes while remaining on their homeland.

And broadband creates new opportunity for tribal members to start online businesses or perhaps telework to avoid long commutes to jobs.

The next step, Haase says, is interconnecting wireless broadband with smart grid meters to improve the geolocation system, which can help pinpoint caller locations through the 911 system.

NTIA's Broadband Technology Opportunities Program has invested in more than 50 projects to build networks in tribal areas that have historically lacked adequate telecommunications infrastructure. Among the other grantees are the Ute Indian Tribe in Utah, the Nez Perce Tribe in Idaho, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe in Nevada and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe in New York. Other grant recipients are tribal institutions, including the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority and the College of Menominee Nation in Wisconsin.

Across Indian country, only 54 percent of the population has access to basic wireline broadband speeds, in contrast to 94 percent of the U.S. population as a whole, according to National Broadband Map data.