Arizona Public Service officials at a meeting of the Navajo County Board of Supervisors recently offered additional details of a plan that could improve the speed, reliability and capacity of the internet in much of northern Arizona.
The presentation provided additional details on how the APS plan could dovetail with efforts to eliminate the dangerous outages that have plagued Rim Country for years, taking out both the internet and cell phone service when mishaps cut the existing CenturyLink line between Phoenix and Payson that passes through Camp Verde.
The APS officials said within the year Rim Country will have reliable, high-speed internet to rival anything in the country. The line opens the door to an expansion of the internet-dependent economy expected to become increasingly dominant.
County Supervisor Steve Williams said, “This is a significant project for the region. I’m excited about the possibilities that will come for economic growth and the quality of life for businesses and people here. So I really appreciate APS for its partnership on this. It’s a big deal.”
There’s just one catch.
APS says it will string the trunk line on existing transmission towers from Phoenix to Payson within the year and continue the line on up to Cholla within two years. The utility company is undertaking the project mostly to provide its own internet system for communications and control. But while they’re stringing line from one giant transmission tower to the next by helicopter, they’ll put enough fiber atop those towers to serve the needs of the entire region.
However, no one will get a signal unless some other company like Cable One, CenturyLink, Suddenlink, Verizon, T-Mobile or other providers prove willing to pay a monthly fee for access.
Neil Traver, APS division manager said, “We’re going to build the interstate — which has the capacity to backhaul everything back to Phoenix where the internet lives in big server farms. We’re building the main infrastructure — so Verizon, SparkByte, CenturyLink, the hospitals — anyone who wants to use the space we’re building — can lease the excess capacity we don’t need and they can use it for dedicated lines.”
APS will essentially pay for the “middle mile” of the internet, but other companies will have to pay for the “last mile,” which brings the signal to homes and businesses.
He said the line will reach Payson next year.
Cable One has struck a deal with the MHA Foundation in Payson to connect its existing line in Heber to Payson, hopefully by the end of the year. If Cable One agrees to connect to the APS line from Phoenix once it reaches Payson, most of the White Mountains would have a redundant internet connection. Meanwhile, if CenturyLink connects, then Suddenlink and other local providers, Rim Country would have a high speed, redundant line as well.
The high-capacity APS line would also provide plenty of bandwidth for growth without sacrificing speed.
Traver said, “This will enable the next leap, which is into the 5G cell phone world.”
APS IT Senior Manager Dominic Pagliuca said the line would likely have plenty of capacity to meet the needs of the region for the next 30 years or more.
“It’s not forever, but for most of our lifetime. There’s a fiber line that connects the United States and the European Union. The need for capacity has grown, but they’ve changed the technology at both ends.”
After the meeting, Pagliuca said the company hasn’t yet figured out what it might charge for access to its line for either cell phone companies or retail internet providers like Suddenlink.
That could prove the key question when it comes to finally eliminating the outages and slow uploads and downloads that have plagued rural areas throughout the state — including Gila, Navajo and Apache counties.
The APS announcement also adds a wrinkle when it comes to Cable One’s parallel plans to connect the White Mountains first to Payson and then to Phoenix. The MHA Foundation has put up some $2.4 million to ensure the line makes it from Heber to Payson and has been seeking partners to raise $8 million to extend the line to Phoenix. The APS proposal would appear to make that extra, expensive connection unnecessary — depending on how much APS charges to connect to its line.
The APS announcement also adds another level of complexity to the federally funded E-Rate program, which provides high-speed, reliable internet connections to libraries and schools. Libraries have increasingly come to rely on giving borrowers access to databases, e-books and audiobooks online. Schools have become ever more reliant on the internet — not only to teach technology classes, but to enable students to take online classes. That’s especially important in small rural school districts that sometimes can’t offer even core academic classes, much less exotic electives.
Apache County has received millions in E-rate grants and has already improved connections for many rural schools. Presumably, the APS trunk line will increase speed and reliability — and perhaps E-Rate will pay the cost of the connection.
Gila County was recently awarded millions of E-Rate dollars to improve the connection to its schools and libraries. The grant was supposed to improve the connection to Phoenix to create redundancy, so the line won’t go down because of a single cut along the way. Presumably an APS-funded trunk line from Phoenix would make those E-Rate dollars go much further.
Navajo County has so far lagged in getting E-Rate grants, partly because a three-county consortium fell apart a year ago due to allegations of irregularities in the bidding process. Navajo County schools have appealed the denial of funding and missed the last cycle of funding.