The Payson Unified School District hedged its internet bet last week by joining a new coalition seeking federal help to bring high-speed broadband to Rim Country.
The school board voted unanimously to join a newly formed Gila County Consortium, which will seek federal e-rate grants to boost broadband speed and capacity for schools and libraries throughout the county.
However, the district still belongs to another school consortium that includes Navajo County, which last year blundered into controversy.
The school district’s quest for federal funds remains completely separate from a parallel local effort to add a much faster broadband cable into Rim Country. The group hopes to eliminate the frequent, dangerous internet outages when there’s a break in the current relatively low-capacity, one-way cable leading into Rim Country from Camp Verde. However, if Payson Schools can win a share of the billions in federal dollars available through the e-rate program, it could prove invaluable to those parallel efforts.
Former Payson Mayor Kenny Evans in a Payson business roundtable with Gov. Doug Ducey announced a local group had made a multi-million-dollar commitment to provide a high-speed, redundant connection to Rim Country. However, the group has made no public announcement concerning its plans since that meeting.The school district last week joined the newly formed Gila County Information Exchange Consortium as a possible second way to qualify for e-rate funding from the federal government.
The district’s bid for funding last year got caught up in the problems faced by a Gila County-Navajo County schools and libraries consortium.
The group applied for a $60 million federal grant to bring high speed-high capacity internet to schools and libraries in the two counties.
The consortium appeared on the brink of winning the grant, when one of the rejected bidders filed a protest. That protest raised questions about the bidding process and the adequacy of the winning bid, which prompted the federal e-rate program to withhold funding to look into the allegations.
“The protest is in the federal hands right now,” said Payson Schools Superintendent Greg Wyman. “So one of the offshoots of that was to break up the consortium. This particular agreement doesn’t bind the district. So right now we’re part of three groups — ourselves, Navajo County and Gila. At some point, we’re going to have to choose one of them. If the feds rule positively on Navajo County, we can move forward with that. If they rule in favor of the protest, then we’ll look at doing it ourselves or as part of the Gila County Information Exchange.”
He noted that the district hopes to win a chunk of funding sometime in the next two years, to take advantage of a state match for the federal grant. The federal e-rate program would cover 80 percent of the cost. The state would cover another 10 percent.
The school board action last week represents the latest twist in a convoluted effort to improve the reliability and speed of broadband coverage in Rim Country. Repeatedly in the past three years, breaks in the cable between Camp Verde and Payson have knocked out most cell phone and internet service in the whole area for hours —sometimes for days. Those outages have caused assorted medical emergencies and at least one death, in addition to costing local businesses money when they lose sales because they can’t process purchases without the internet. Economic development officials in the county and Payson say the lack of reliable, high-speed internet remains one of the biggest challenges when it comes to luring new businesses to the region.