FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- The Navajo Nation has formalized an agreement with a wholesale wireless provider to upgrade telecommunications services on the vast reservation where many residents lack even basic telephone service.
The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority and Commnet Wireless LLC announced the partnership Monday. The agreement builds on work the two entities already had done to secure $32 million in stimulus funds for the $46 million high-speed network.
The project is expected to take a couple of years to complete, and when it is finished, about 80 percent of tribal members living on the reservation will have access to the broadband network, officials said. Already, they are touting the anticipated benefits in health care, economic development, education and emergency response services.
"Everybody is very excited, but we recognize this is a big project," said Atlantic Tele-Network CEO Michael Prior. "We recognize this is a challenge. It's a big area to deploy pretty rapidly with very advanced technologies. We are confident we are going to get this done."
The venture creates NTUA Wireless LLC, of which the tribe has majority ownership.
The tribe's endeavors in the telecommunications business have been limited to helping outside wireless companies gain access to towers on the reservation and leasing space to them. With the partnership, NTUA general manager Walter Haase says the utility soon could be selling mobile and broadband services to the Navajo people.
"It's a big, dramatic step," Haase said. "The goal or hope is to grow that wholesale business into a retail business."
The deployment of 3G mobile and 4G broadband services through hundreds of lines of new fiber optic cables and 59 new or modified microwave towers is being built from east to west across the reservation, and the network is expected to blanket almost half of the tribe's 27,000 square-miles.
The project must be 70 percent complete in the first quarter of 2012 to comply with the terms of receiving the stimulus funding, said NTUA spokeswoman Deenise Becenti.
Commnet -- a subsidiary of Massachusetts-based Atlantic Tele-Network Inc. -- focuses on providing roaming service in rural areas. Its network already extends into parts of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
The retail plan is largely dependent on the federal government's approval of a subsidy that would allow eligible, low-income residents to purchase mobile service plans for as little as $1 a month, Haase said.
The tribe must petition the Federal Communications Commission to be designated an eligible telecommunications carrier to receive support from the Universal Service Fund program under the FCC.
The FCC also is considering tapping the program to subsidize high-speed Internet connection, which Haase said would be important in a place where broadband could be easier to access than a traditional phone line.
"By being involved in this joint venture, we expect to make money," Haase said. "We want the money to come back here and be reinvested in new infrastructure for the benefit of the Navajo people."