After years of negotiations, Gila County schools and libraries will receive $17 million from the federal E-rate program to bring broadband cable to their locations in Payson, Pine, Tonto Basin, Young, Globe, Hayden-Winkelman, Miami and San Carlos.
“I’m hoping to get all of the funding from the federal government by July 1, (until then) we can’t start construction until July 1,” said Milan Eaton, the Arizona Department of Education state E-rate director. “It’s been a challenge every step of the way.”
The bulk of the money will go to southern Gila County, which has less broadband infrastructure in place than northern Gila County.
This project is separate from the effort by local officials and the MHA Foundation to both increase internet speeds and create a redundant loop to prevent outages in Payson.
Federal grant requirements make it clear the projects for the schools and libraries remain completely separate from the overall effort to bolster broadband.
That said, the E-rate money would pay for the bulk of the construction costs to create an outage-proof system from Show Low to Phoenix, said Eaton.
“E-rate will pay for the trenching and permitting, but only two strands of fiber,” he said.
Cable One has said it will lay a trunk line that can hold hundreds of fibers in order to have enough broadband capacity to serve businesses and expand in the future. Businesses such as Verizon use fiber optics to provide cell phone service to customers, which requires a lot of data. Cable One would like to make sure it lays line that will serve the needs of the community for many years.
E-rate will not pay for that additional fiber, said Eaton.
Eaton worked closely with Gila County Superintendent Roy Sandoval and Deputy County Manager Jacque Sanders to write a grant for the $17 million Gila will receive to build needed technological infrastructure for its schools and libraries.
“We know if we are funded it will bring the high speed cabling within a mile of all the schools in Gila County,” said Sandoval.
The federally funded E-rate program provides discounts to schools and libraries so they can afford internet access and telecommunications. Rural Arizona schools have lagged far behind urban areas in upgrading internet service. Many online classes need far better speeds and capacity than the region’s decades old broadband cabling can provide.
Three years ago, Eaton began pushing to upgrade rural Arizona schools’ access to the internet.
“I knew how hard it was for some schools to do any online classes at all,” said Eaton. “We want a gig at every location.”
Every year, broadband needs increase, said Eaton.
“Bandwidth needs will double every year. And double is an understatement,” he said.
Students need enough broadband to have a Chromebook or computer. On top of that, the district needs enough bandwidth to provide distance learning. Add phones and administrative bandwidth needs and it all adds up real quick, said Eaton.
The trouble with bandwidth for schools started when western states lagged behind eastern states in technological upgrades for education because of low population density, distances between towns and rugged geography. These factors make it prohibitively expensive to lay cable.
Moreover, Arizona had a target on its back as the second most expensive E-rate consumer in the country.
“We’re second to Texas — that puts us in the spotlight,” said Eaton.
Then Arizona had a lucky break.
In 2017, the federal government changed the rules “to allow us ‘special construction’ if the state had a stake in the game,” said Eaton.
With this ace in his pocket, Eaton went to then-Arizona Corporation Commissioner Andy Tobin to seek state funding. Eaton knew Tobin had a soft spot for the struggles of rural Arizonans because he grew up in rural Arizona.
“I went to the ACC and commissioner Andy Tobin and told him with $10 million we can get $100 million,” said Eaton.
Eaton pitched the idea of using a forgotten tax called the Arizona Universal Service Fund to jump-start funding the state’s $10 million contribution.
“It was 1 cent on residents’ phone bill,” said Eaton.
He suggested upping that tax to 8 cents for a year. This made the fund end up netting $8 million. The two then sold the governor’s office on adding $3 million to the deal to come up with the $11 million.
The E-rate program responded.
Tobin just announced E-rate would give Arizona $127 million to bring broadband to its rural schools and libraries.
Eaton said the extra $27 million came because Arizona rural schools have so many low-income families. E-rate pays more if a school has a certain percentage of its population under the federal poverty level.
“I didn’t expect us to have so many schools in poverty,” he said.
Eaton confirmed Cable One would lay the cable for Gila County schools and libraries.
The lines will come from Show Low to service the north county schools. The cable for south county schools will have cable line from Phoenix.
“Our shortcoming right now is from Phoenix to Payson,” said Eaton.
Cable One agreed to lay a line from Payson to Phoenix, but no one is exactly sure how it will all work out. Fortunately, even without completing the loop to Phoenix, Gila County schools and libraries should still wind up with lightning-fast internet.