WHITE MOUNTAINS — A pair of Southwestern U.S. congressmen on opposite sides of the political spectrum have managed to join forces and introduce legislation to assist Indian tribes in maintaining, expanding and deploying broadband systems.

First District Arizona Congressman Tom O’Halleran, (D), and New Mexico Congressman Steve Pearce (R), introduced HR5172 on Tuesday, addressing the lack of broadband in rural areas as critical for rural economies and education needs.

“Access to reliable, affordable broadband is critical for the economic vitality of a region and the educational success of students,” O’Halleran said, “but throughout Indian Country, many communities lack even the most basic access to internet. Resources that could be used to invest in an expansive broadband system that connects rural and tribal communities with the wider world are often used up by metropolitan areas.”

O’Halleran said the bipartisan legislation is “a common-sense solution to close the gap between urban and rural communities” by providing tribal governments with access to funds to build and maintain a 21st century infrastructure system.

“This is not a partisan issue, it is an economic development issue for the region, and I am proud to have the support of my colleague Congressman Pearce on this legislation,” he said.

Fred Soto, deputy attorney general for WMAT who is currently serving as acting attorney general, said the legislation is a “major step” in the right direction and would help provide the White Mountain Apache people with much-needed access to technical assistance and/or funding to upgrade its broadband infrastructure.

“My daughter participates in tribal community, daycare and educational events, so I know first-hand the problems that stem from our lack of funding and expertise with telecommunications and broadband,” he said. “Our failed attempts at securing federal funds for broadband over the last decade has set back yet another generation of White Mountain Apache children that would benefit greatly from such technological advancements.”

Soto said the bill would positively impact education on the Fort Apache Reservation as teachers are “charged with the enormous task of educating our children and ensuring that they are prepared for the future.”

“That future includes 21st century jobs — as automated technology will assume many manual labor functions — and broadband would help encourage the skills necessary that will be critical in our evolving work force.”

Pearce, who is currently running to become New Mexico’s next governor, said rural communities throughout his state are all too familiar with the difficulties and limitations of accessing high-speed broadband.

“This affects the livelihoods of many people who are simply trying to apply for jobs, go to school or stay connected with the rest of the world,” Pearce said. “Tribal communities, not only in New Mexico but throughout the West, are severely underserved with an increasing rate of being left in the dark. I’m joining Congressman O’Halleran to ensure that tribes have the technical assistance necessary to access federal funding for deployment, expansion and maintenance of broadband infrastructure.”

Pearce said the legislation is “the first step of many” that will end the digital divide between tribes and the rest of the country.

The legislation provides assistance to tribes to identify and apply for federal programs and grants for broadband deployment and maintenance, and it allows tribal governments to establish tribal grant programs for these projects.

“If there is one thing I have learned over the years, it is that the Apache people are strong and proud, and the need to overcome extraordinary obstacles has become the norm rather than the exception,” Soto said. “Even so, I can confidently state that the White Mountain Apache Tribe would welcome such legislation, and we very much appreciate the efforts of Rep. Tom O’Halleran, his co-sponsors and any members of Congress that lend their support to this important broadband infrastructure bill.”

Officials with the Navajo Nation did not return messages seeking comment.

Reach the county editor at mjohnson@wmicentral.com

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