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Only Telecomm Based On Navajo Nation Looks to 90 Percent Availability

A partially Navajo-owned telecomm has just finished wiring 105 homes in two more Navajo communities in pursuit of its goal of bringing phone service to 90 percent of the 12,000 people living in its 3,600-square-mile service area on the reservation.

Forty homes were given telecomm hookups in a subdivision in the Nageezi chapter and sixty-five more in a subdivision in the Huesfano chapter, both in New Mexico, during July, reported Sacred Wind Communications chief executive John Badal. They were hybrid wired-wireless connections using both copper wire drops into the houses and remote radio transmission to distribution boxes, then to be transferred to the copper wires. No land lines or cables were used.

The company, based in Yatahey, New Mexico, on the reservation, did similar hookups for 100 homes in Tohajiillee, New Mexico, last December.

Badal told the recent Southwest Tribes Leadership Conference in Albuquerque that when his company started in 2006, only 26 percent of residents had basic telephone availability and none had broadband in the Qwest service area that his firm took over with the help of a $70 million loan from the federal government. (Badal is a thirty-year veteran of telecomms, including Qwest and AT&T.)

In addition, just 1 percent of residents were taking advantage of the federal “lifeline” program that allows low-income tribal residents to get phone service for $1 per month. Nearly 60 percent of residents could qualify for it, he estimated.

Now, Sacred Wind, a private firm which has one Navajo board member and minority share investor, has increased service to 40 percent basic phone availability (the telecomm’s goal is 90 percent by 2013-2014) and 97 percent access to broadband (1200 customers are using the lifeline service).

Badal said his company’s “fixed wireless” service is the largest in the country, and he hopes to make it the largest in the world when finished. (Fixed wireless differs from traditional cell phone service in that, instead of having to be in range of a signal from the cell phone tower, his towers broadcast either directly to antennae on the roofs of subscribers or to distribution boxes where the signal is transferred to copper wires to carry it into the home.)

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The use of both wireless and wired (it has a fiber optic component as well) makes Sacred Wind a hybrid provider. The firm also plans to introduce traditional cell phone service, said Badal.

Badal pointed out that his company is the only telecomm based on the Navajo of the four telecoms now providing service to it. He said his firm has hired Navajo and Zuni pueblo workers and started training programs to produce more local employees.

In addition, he said Sacred Wind respects Navajo culture. It has started a digital service called DineNet that provides customers links to Navajo history, information on medical services available, a newsletter on diabetes, heart disease and other common reservation afflictions, as well as a section on traditional medicine.

The telecommm has also signed an agreement with Navajo Language Renaissance and Rosetta Stone to provide the only online Navajo language training.

“There is no economics in this,” he replied to a question about a business plan. Only 10 percent of revenues came from the customers. The rest comes from a fund set up by the Federal Communications Commission for rural telecomms that provide service to high-cost areas (like the Navajo), and from sales of bandwidth.

Badal said tribes should look into doing their own telecomms. Just a handful have done so to date, including several in Arizona and one by the Mescalero Apache tribe in New Mexico.

How do his customers react to being introduced into the digital age? “Sometimes they sing,” he said. “The children get in traditional clothes and dance.”

About his own motivation, Badal said he belonged to a group of retirees “willing to do some good before we die.”