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Apache County explores statewide broadband initiative

ST. JOHNS — Apache County officials are contemplating ways to tap into funding for new broadband infrastructure to its schools and libraries. A representative of the Arizona Department of Education brought the idea before the Apache County Board of Supervisor’s meeting on Tuesday as part of an update the Arizona Broadband for Education Initiative. The initiative which is projected to bring more than $100 million in new broadband infrastructure to schools and libraries statewide.

The initiative’s goal is to “ensure that every public K-12 instructional building in the state is connected via high speed and reliable broadband connections to enable digital learning in the classroom,” according to the Department of Education website. All schools and libraries in the state are eligible to participate. The federal funding for the project comes from the E-Rate program, funded through the Federal Communications Commission. The E-rate program has helped fund technology in schools for the past 20 years.

The state must provide matching funds to receive the assistance. AZDEA will provide $3 million in matching funds, and the state’s Corporation Commission will provide $8 million through the state’s Universal Service Fund, for a total pot of $11 million, which will be matched dollar for dollar, for about $110 million in federal funding. Milan Eaton, E-rate coordinator for the AZDEA, told the Apache County Board of Supervisors on May 16 that the initiative will provide the funds to build the infrastructure to bring high speed broadband services, and that it will pay 100 percent of construction costs.

“With this funding we can build towers, we can put cable in the ground,” he said. Eaton said that while this funding is only for schools and libraries, communities can piggyback on the project by paying their share to connect town hall buildings, police departments and hospitals, which would also bring access to the public as cable is laid across communities to connect schools and government.

In an interview, Eaton said that by putting broadband infrastructure in place, more private internet service provider companies will be attracted to the area, which will increase access and reduce overall costs.

“It means that we can encourage other carriers to come in here. … People want options. If you have choices, it drives prices down and service levels go up,” he said. “Building fiber-optic … has an added benefit. You’re helping the community grow.”

At the close of Tuesday’s meeting of the Board of Supervisors, Eaton met with representatives of the county library district, Apache County School Superintendent Barry Williams, and an IT representative from Navajo County to talk about “how we build a network, encourage vendors to come in, and how we can leverage Apache and Navajo County working together,” Eaton said. Williams said the Apache County School Business Consortium, which assists schools in the county with technology support, is exploring the possibility of playing a role in bringing the broadband funding to school districts and the broader community.

“There is an opportunity to bring in fiber optics … in our area there is a lot that can be done,” he said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “I think we have to take the 30,000-foot view, look at the whole community. When the trench is open, the towns can pay for their conduit. It’s a more efficient process.”

Williams said Tuesday’s meeting with Eaton and other partners was a “brainstorming session,” and now the individual partners need to “come up with a blueprint for what this could look like.”

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said, noting “there are so many unknowns.”

School districts and consortiums can submit funding applications that include construction estimates to get in on the initiative, although the deadline for funding applications for the current year has already passed. Eaton said that only $1.4 million of the $11 million in state funding has been allocated to applications that were received this year. Williams seemed optimistic about the possibilities of the initiative, although he said that similar proposals have come and gone in years past.

“This year we have $11 million in a pot in support of this program.

We’ve never gotten to this point before,” he said.

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