SHIPROCK — When President Bill Clinton visited Shiprock in April 2000, he met a 13-year-old Navajo girl who had won a laptop computer through a school contest. The president was stunned to learn that the girl could not connect to the Internet because she had no phone line at home, and wireless access was a distant dream.
At the opening of the Navajo Nation's new data center on Tuesday, officials opened a laptop on stage, quickly connected to the Internet and played a YouTube video without a hitch.
"Bill Clinton's dream is finally realized," said Walter Haase, general manager of the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority.
The NTUA on Tuesday hosted an invitation-only event at the secure data center in Shiprock. The $8 million facility will spread wireless Internet access to 70 percent of the Navajo population living on the reservation, tribal officials said.
"We also wanted to be able to connect areas that were not profitable or less profitable," Haase said.
The Navajo Nation retains control by owning 51 percent of the project through NTUA. Commnet Wireless owns the rest.
Arviso Construction Co. of Fort Wingate, a construction company owned by a Navajo family, was the lead contractor.
The data center is open for business to organizations that wish to rent server capacity from the NTUA.
"Clearly it's for the Navajo Nation as the data center, but it's for the Four Corners as well," said Mike Hazel, NTUA division manager.
Navajo President Ben Shelly said it's important for the tribe to maintain open markets on the reservation.
"I don't want to have one enterprise monopolize the Navajo Nation," Shelly said. "It's wrong."
He said the data center points to a more diverse business environment.
"We are now a technology nation, not just an energy nation," he said.
The data center is the only of its kind in the region. Located behind the NTAU's office building, the data center is surrounded by razor wire and has numerous other security features. The server room is kept at a constant temperature of 65 degrees and humidity is kept at 40 to 60 percent.
NTAU board chairman Sidney Bob Dietz II said he was skeptical of the project at first.
"I was the most reluctant of any (board member) to go into the telecom business," he said. "I felt it might be outside our wheelhouse."
Dietz said he came around to the notion that the data center could spur economic development on the reservation and provide jobs for talented Navajo youths.
"We need these things for our young folks," he said. "We don't want them to leave and go to California like me or (Washington), D.C. or wherever they might go."
Johnny Naize, speaker of the Navajo Nation Council, recalled how residents of his isolated chapter, Tselani/Cottonwood, southwest of Chinle, Ariz., once climbed mesas in search of cell phone service before Cellular One built a site on an existing tower in the area.
Elderly residents are clamoring for Internet service, he said.
"It's our lifeline," Naize said.