Overcoming the challenge of connecting rural AZ to broadband

CIBECUE, AZ – Surrounded by the White Mountains of eastern Arizona, the town of Cibecue is home to approximately 2,000 members of the White Mountain Apache Tribe.

It’s a small town with big dreams for its students, and 18-year-old Jovi Williams is one of them.

“I want to make peace and share our ideals as an American and especially as a Native American,” he told ABC15.

The high school graduate planned everything.

Later this year he will graduate from Cibecue Community School for a college degree in foreign affairs.

His ultimate goal is to work for the US State Department.

“As [a] Diplomat, at a US embassy or consulate. I want to represent the United States abroad,” he said.

He wants to share his Apache legacy with the world. Something that’s difficult to do at the moment, not only because of the tribe’s remote location, but also because of its disconnect from technology.

“We’re one of the isolated communities in Arizona,” Williams said.

According to the US Census Bureau, the median annual household income in Cibecue is $16,058 and nearly 68% of residents live below the poverty line.

Very few buildings have internet and those that do have to rely on mobile hotspots or the slower speeds that are available.

“If the children have to take online assessments, we have to close everything to make room for the tests. Because if we don’t do that, they can’t even participate in their tests,” said Superintendent Marilou Areno. “So it’s so limited that we have to plan who’s going to use it. Otherwise it’s all just buffering and bumping.”

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Some have internet service via satellite, which residents say can be disrupted by something as simple as a change in the weather.

“When it rains, our internet goes down for a period of time and we can’t get things done,” said Donna Cooley, a member of the Cibecue School Board.

She says affordable, reliable broadband internet could change a lot of things.

“The resources to take tests or apply to colleges or jobs, either here or internationally or elsewhere,” Cooley said.

But if Milan Eaton has his way, these things could soon become a reality for the students and the city.

“Today, if you graduate, if you want to make a good living, you have to live on a six-figure income, you have to go,” Eaton told ABC15.

He is the director of the Arizona Department of Education’s E-Rate program. The program uses federal dollars to install high-speed Internet infrastructure in schools in remote areas.

According to the White House, 14% of Arizona residents live in areas without broadband infrastructure with minimum acceptable speeds. 45 percent live in an area where there is only one internet service provider and even if it is available, the costs may be too high. Thirteen percent of Arizona households do not have an Internet subscription.

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In Navajo County, where Cibecue is located, 60 percent of households earning less than $20,000 have no Internet access, according to data from the US Census Bureau.

Eaton has used federal funding from the E-Rate program with state funds to create the Final Mile project. The goal is to bring broadband from schools to homes.

His first project was in the Paloma Elementary School District in Gila Bend, a rural area of ​​Maricopa County made up largely of migrant workers and their families.

ABC15 attended Mr. Turner’s science class while the students watched a live stream of a vet performing surgery on a python in Florida.

The children could interact and ask questions in real time.

That’s the power of a broadband connection, but Superintendent Kristin Turner said most of her students couldn’t get the same access at home, especially during the pandemic when spotty mobile hotspots were the only solution for home learning.

“The majority of our students were trying to access the internet through their parents’ cellphone hotspots,” she told ABC15. “And if more than one kid did that, it meant their sibling missed their class, or it would just be a lottery to see who got to go to class and who didn’t.”

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Last school year fiber optics was installed at the school and Final Mile installed antennas powerful enough to broadcast to the community.

Eaton says eight other broadband-to-home projects have since been completed or are nearing completion, offering more affordable options for students and families.

Student access to education is $10 per month. Regular home broadband ranges from $35 to $100 per month, depending on the bandwidth you choose.

“This is a life changing event. They can now work from home, earn a living and raise their families in this beautiful environment,” Eaton told ABC15.

That’s what the people of Cibecue are hoping for.

“These students need to know that there are opportunities they can reach,” Williams said

Soon, just maybe, they’ll be able to take advantage of these opportunities from the comfort of their own homes.

The Arizona Department of Education just received $3 million in grants to get started with Cibecue and three other rural communities in the near future.

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