Editor's note: The remote Navajo Nation is about to get wireless communicaton service, better opening it to the world. This story is part of a series looking into the Navajo's global potential and its current perspective on international connections.

NAVAJO NATION — Lucy Hubbard climbs to her roof when her homework is due.

From there the mother of five, who is taking online education classes at the University of New Mexico, plugs in her wireless card and sends in her assignment.

An email can take 30 minutes, she said.

Hubbard and all her children have cell phones. They keep them outside on the porch so they can receive text messages.

If they want to make a call, they climb back to the roof, atop a mesa or drive about 20 miles to Crownpoint. The Hubbards are technologically advanced compared to much of the Navajo Nation: About 60 percent of Nation residents lack basic telephone service.

But isolated hogans scattered throughout the reservation are less than two years away from having the technology needed to tap into a global community and marketplace.

A fiber optic cable that stretches from one end of the Nation to the other and 59 new or renovated cell phone towers are scheduled to be complete in March 2013.

The towers and cables will mark a "once-in-a-lifetime" change in Indian Country, connecting people on the reservation to the rest of America and the world like never before, said Monroe Keedo, the utility divisions manager for the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, and the broadband project coordinator.

"It's a paradigm shift of how technology is done on the Navajo Nation because it will bring that infrastructure right to their doorstep," Keedo said.

The project will affect nearly all Navajo customs and commerce, Keedo said. Education, healthcare and emergency response services will use the infrastructure daily. Policy makers and chapter houses will be better informed. Navajo people in remote areas will be able to become global entrepreneurs, using the Web to sell goods and start Navajo businesses.

"All sorts of positive things can change," Keedo said. "The gates will be open for the Navajo people."

 

The Project

 

The Navajo utility authority (NTUA) is creating with Commnet Wireless a joint venture called NTUA Wireless, LLC. The subsidiary will allow NTUA to sell broadband services like it sells electricity, water and other utilities. NTUA also will sell cell tower access to interested providers, which should increase the number of cell phone companies available on the reservation, driving down prices, Monroe said.

The infrastructure project is funded primarily with federal stimulus money. NTUA and Commnet received $32 million for the project in March 2010. The project must be completed by March 2013, according to the federal stimulus website.

Additionally, NTUA invested $11 million and Commnet invested $3 million into the $46 million project, Keedo said.

Construction is being done in phases. Several cell phone towers and a 130-mile fiber optic cable from Shiprock to Window Rock, Ariz., are expected to be functioning by the end of the year, Keedo said.

The cable will be connected to major institutions throughout the reservation, including schools, hospitals, chapter houses and police stations, Keedo said.

There are between 35,000 and 40,000 homes on the reservation that purchase electricity from NTUA. Keedo sees all of them as potential Internet and cell phone customers.

The NTUA estimates between 70 and 80 percent of Navajo families will purchase Internet services from the utility company once the project is completed, he said.

"I think it ... can change the way we look at ourselves, how we better ourselves," Keedo said. "And help us bring more economics and development to our people."

 

Learn from the past, plan for the future

 

The Nation entered a similar venture with OnSat communication in 2001 to provide Internet via satellite dishes to all the chapter houses. That company reportedly overcharged the Nation and failed to deliver on the services it was paid to provide. The Tribal Council eventually voted to stop the project, but not before the tribe paid considerable fees for non-existent Internet.

NTUA's hefty $11 million investment should serve as a safeguard against mismanagement or corruption, said GloJean Todacheene, a San Juan County commissioner.

"Because it's a Navajo enterprise and (NTUA) took the initiative, maybe it will more successful than it was with OnSat," she said. "If you're investing in something, you're going to ensure that it's successful.

Todacheene also said the NTUA officials will be more familiar with managing the services than the tribe was 10 years ago.

"You can do something, but if you don't train people, you are in for a lot of difficulty and failure," she said. "If they put in the training along with the service, (NTUA) can manage it really well."

Also left to be addressed are tribal laws specific to widespread Internet use, Keedo said.

"The Navajo Nation boundary is kind of like a wall where things stop and don't come in," he said. "The Nation is going to have to start thinking about laws against things like child pornography, things that the regular western world deals with now."

Before the tribe can fully embrace the technology that is coming its way, there will have to be a "mass educating," Todacheene said. But many Navajos, especially young ones, have learned to embrace and use technology despite a digital divide and barriers (like climbing a roof for a cell phone signal) most Americans don't have to face. By shrinking the gap, Navajo business, public health, safety and international influence are primed to grow.

"I think everyone's looking forward to not being frustrated because they can't connect," Todacheene said. "It's really going to put Navajos right there with the rest of the nation."

 

Ryan Boetel: rboetel@daily-times.com