Calling it “a complete blessing” the Gila County Board of Supervisors Tuesday afternoon accepted a $19 million grant to bring broadband to county libraries and schools in the next two years.
The county has been working since November 2017 to get the funding needed to build the infrastructure to provide high-speed internet to every school and library in Gila County.
When Roy Sandoval, Gila County superintendent of schools, recently got word that the funding had come through, he said it stunned him.
At a time when many schools are switching to online learning, Sandoval said having reliable, high-speed internet is more important than ever.
“Imagine that during this critical period when schools go online, when the bandwidth is limited, this has come through,” he said, adding it will provide the capacity needed to push education and library services forward — and at no cost to the county or facilities.
The funding comes from the Universal Services Administrative Company (USAC) E-rate program with matching funds provided by the Arizona Department of Education.
The county first made a bid for E-rate funding in the fall of 2017 when it joined the Navajo County Education Consortium. That partnership ultimately did not pan out, so Gila County decided to create its own consortium. The county hired the GetFunded consulting agency to help get funding.
During the fall of 2018, the Gila County School Superintendent’s Office and the Gila County Library District formed the Gila County Information Education Technology Consortium to allow member school districts and the library district to solicit bids to provide high-speed internet service and qualify for federal rebate funding through the USAC E-rate program.
Shortly after the formation, the consortium published a request for proposals (RFP) through the E-rate process to expand options for construction costs for increased bandwidth and internet access.
After an extensive review process, which included the Gila County Finance Department as the consortium’s fiscal agent, along with GetFunded, CableOne (now Sparklight) put in a bid for $19 million.
There was additional funding available from USAC for construction to assist with the expansion of broadband connectivity. Because the plan could still leave a library or school with a substantial cost-share responsibility, the Office of the Governor, the Arizona Corporation Commission, the Arizona Department of Education and the Arizona State Library partnered to create an additional grant program to assist schools and libraries with up to 20% of the construction cost-share responsibilities, administered by the Arizona Department of Education.
The project has been in the review stage with USAC since February 2019.
In March 2019, the Arizona Department of Education approved the state match funding request contingent upon successful approval from USAC.
The USAC sent a letter confirming funding on May 13.
Milan Eaton, state E-rate director, will serve as project manager for the county.
“I am beyond ecstatic to be here,” Eaton said.
He said the project will ultimately benefit everyone in the county.
“This is one of those projects, a once in a generation opportunity and you took advantage of it,” Eaton said to the BOS Tuesday.
“Now the hard part starts.”
Construction could take between 16-24 months, depending on how long it takes to get permits, he said. In Navajo County, it took 14 months to complete broadband construction for schools and libraries.
Gila County Supervisor Tim Humphrey thanked Sandoval, Jacque Sanders, deputy county manager, and Eaton for their work to see the project through.
“It is a complete blessing,” he said of getting funding approval.