NewsIn Depth


Overcoming the challenge of connecting rural AZ to broadband

Posted at 4:00 PM, Sep 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-21 23:07:08-04

CIBECUE, AZ — Surrounded by the White Mountains in eastern Arizona, the town of Cibecue is home to about 2,000 members of the White Mountain Apache Tribe.

It's a small town with big dreams for its students and 18-year-old Jovi Williams is one of them.

"I want to create peace and share our ideals as Americans and especially the Native Americans," he told ABC15.

The high school senior has it all planned out. 

Later this year he will graduate from Cibecue Community School and from there he'll earn his college degree in foreign affairs.

His ultimate goal is to work for the U.S. Department of State.

"As [a] diplomat, at any U.S. embassy or consulate office. I want to represent the United States abroad," he said.

He wants to share his Apache heritage with the world. Something that is hard to do right now, not only because of the tribe's remote location but because of its disconnect from technology.

"We are one of the isolated communities in Arizona," Williams said.

According to the US Census Bureau, the annual median household income in Cibecue is $16,058 and nearly 68% of residents live below the poverty line.

Very few buildings have internet and those that do must rely on mobile hotspots or slower speeds that are available.

"When the kids need to take assessments online, we need to shut down everything to give way to the testing. Because if we don't do that, they cannot even get into their tests," said Superintendent Marilou Areno. "So, it's limited in a way that we need to schedule who's going to use it. Otherwise, it's all just buffering and getting kicked off." 

Some have internet service via satellite which residents say can be affected by something as simple as a change in the weather.

"When it rainstorms, our internet will go out for a certain amount of time and we can't get on to do the things that are necessary," said Cibecue School Board member Donna Cooley.

She says having affordable, reliable broadband internet could change a lot of things.

"The resources to take tests or applying for colleges or jobs, either here or internationally or other places," Cooley said.

But if Milan Eaton gets his way, those things could soon become reality for the students and the town.

"Today, they have to, when they graduate, if they want to make a good living, you know, a six-figure income living, they have to leave," Eaton told ABC15.

He is the director of the E-Rate program for the Arizona Department of Education. The program uses federal dollars to install high-speed internet infrastructure in schools in remote areas.

According to the White House, 14% of Arizonans live in areas where there is no broadband infrastructure at minimally acceptable speeds. Forty-five percent live in an area where there is only one internet provider and even if available, the costs may be too expensive. Thirteen percent of households in Arizona have no internet subscription.

In Navajo County, where Cibecue is located, 60% percent of households that make less than $20,000 have no access to the internet, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Eaton has leveraged federal funds of the E-Rate program with state funds to create the Final Mile Project. The goal is to bring broadband from schools to homes.

His first project was at Paloma Elementary School District in Gila Bend, a rural area of Maricopa County largely made up of migrant farm workers and their families.

ABC15 visited Mr. Turner's science class while students watched a livestream of a veterinarian performing surgery on a python in Florida.

The kids were able to interact and ask questions in real-time.

That's the power of a broadband connection, but superintendent Kristin Turner said most of her students couldn't get the same access at home, especially during the pandemic when spotty mobile hotspots were the only solution for learning from home.

"The majority of our students were trying to access the internet, from their parents' cell phone hotspots," she told ABC15. "And having more than one kid doing that meant that their sibling would miss out on their class, or it would just be a lottery to see who got to join the class and who didn't."

Last school year, fiber was installed in the school and Final Mile installed antennas strong enough to broadcast to the community.

Since then, Eaton says eight additional broadband-to-home projects have been completed or are near completion, providing more affordable options for students and families.

Educational access for students is $10 per month. Regular residential broadband ranges from $35 up to $100 per month depending on the amount of bandwidth chosen.

"This is a life-changing event. They can now work from home, make a good living, raise their families in that wonderful environment," Eaton told ABC15.

That's exactly what folks in Cibecue are hoping for.

"These students need to know that there's opportunities out there that they can reach," Williams said

Soon, just maybe, they'll be able to reach those opportunities from inside their homes.

The Arizona Department of Education just received $3 million in funding to get started on Cibecue and three other rural communities in the near future.