If a pending federal grant is approved, one of the first LTE (Long-Term Evolution) wireless broadband networks in the U.S. will be built across 15,120 square miles of desert.
The network, backed up by a 550-mile fiber backbone and microwave links, could make the Internet bloom for about 30,000 households in the Navajo Nation, which stretches across a vast region encompassing parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Fewer than 10 percent of the homes and businesses in the Nation have broadband today, according to Monroe Keedo, IT manager for Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA), a multiservice utility that will operate the network. Mobile service is limited to 2G (second-generation) technology.
NTUA hopes to hear this week or next that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has approved its application for a grant of about US$46 million to link this area to the Internet. The utility already has one LTE base station operating in a test, and if all goes as planned, service would be commercially available to some residents in the fourth quarter. It could come online around the same time as some of the first LTE networks planned by giant Verizon Wireless, which has said it will have 25 to 30 markets operational by the end of the year.
The Navajo network is bringing cutting-edge technology to a region that is years behind much of the U.S. in terms of communications. In addition to most homes not having a broadband option, many public facilities are poorly linked. For example, many schools in the Navajo Nation don't have a fast enough Internet connection to teach what they need to teach, Keedo said. With a median age of 24 in the Nation, education is a vital resource.
He envisions a future in which children who have to ride a bus two hours each way to school can do homework during the commute. Better connectivity would also enhance emergency services, and the tribe would be able to capture, record and share Navajo culture, including language, politics, lifestyle and religion, from community centers called Chapter houses, according to NTUA.
"This would be a very strong influence for change here on Navajo," Keedo said. "With the limited amount of broadband here on Navajo, a lot of things we take for granted off the reservation are not here." Counting four people per household, about 120,000 people would be within reach of the network. The Navajo Nation's total population is about 180,000. Some parts of it are already served by other broadband providers.
The project, which he estimated will take about three years to complete, is a joint effort between NTUA and Commnet Wireless, a regional carrier. NTUA will build the network around its electrical transmission towers and other infrastructure, and operate it with technical assistance from Commnet. Future Technologies Ventures is acting as a system integrator on the project.
NTUA's network, as envisioned, would offer impressive speeds. The fiber network will be able to carry 10G bps (bit per second) on a single fiber pair, and there will be 48 fiber pairs available to be lit. The fiber lines will go through 24 communities, with some "arterial" lines reaching out beyond the main cable. NTUA will reach 24 other communities through point-to-point microwave links from DragonWave that can offer speeds as high as 4G bps.
The wireless LTE network itself should deliver about 2M bps downstream and the same upstream, Keedo said. It will use radio spectrum in the 700MHz band, which Commnet has licensed. How subscribers tap into that speed will change as the nascent LTE market matures and new types of devices go on sale. The first client devices offered will be USB modems that plug into laptop or desktop PCs.
NTUA applied for the government grant under the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the economic stimulus package adopted last year. It would be 70 percent of the total cost, with about 30 percent covered by money and capital from the companies building the network, Keedo said. The network will be open to other service providers, which will be able to buy capacity and sell their own services, NTUA said.
The Navajo project is the first LTE deployment in North America for ZTE, a large vendor based in China that, like Huawei Technologies, is making inroads into other markets. Though there is a "buy American" provision in ARRA, the secretary of commerce last year granted a limited waiver for certain types of broadband infrastructure. It would be so hard for ARRA applicants to know the country of origin of all the components of a broadband network that they would be discouraged from applying, the Commerce Department said when it granted the waiver.
Having a new, state-of-the-art network in the Navajo Nation may mean more than just well-connected schools, homes and government buildings, according to John Champagne, vice president of development and planning at Commnet. A large, advanced data center will be built in Fort Defiance, Arizona, where NTUA's IT operations are based. Because it could be built at an affordable price with the grant, that data center could attract outside customers including ISPs (Internet service providers) and nearby casinos, Champagne said.