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Going the distance: Gila County brings high-speed internet to schools, libraries

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For four years, the Gila County School Superintendent’s Office and Library District have collaborated on a project that will ultimately benefit high-speed internet access to every community.

School Superintendent Roy Sandoval said the $19 million project, bringing high-speed internet cabling to every Gila County school and library, has faced numerous obstacles and delays – including COVID. However, it is in the final stages of the last library and school district.

“Not only does it provide high-speed internet cabling to all the schools and libraries in Gila County, but it also provides internet access at a significant discount called ‘E-rate’,” Sandoval said. He credited those he called “the real heroes” of the story; State E-rate Director Milan Eaton, Deputy County Director/County Librarian Jacque Sanders (now retired) and E-rate Consultant/Yavapai County E-rate Director Frank Vander Horst.

Sandoval described the path to this point as “long and convoluted.” There were many obstacles in bringing the project to fruition, not the least of which was working with the entity that oversees the federal E-rate program. Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) presented “what can only be described as a labyrinth of requirements— do’s, don’ts and an entirely new vocabulary of words and acronyms,” Sandoval explains.

Eaton visited the Superintendent’s Office in late October 2017 “to inform us of the opportunity,” Sandoval said. It was then they learned that, to apply, the Gila County schools and libraries would have to form a consortium.

“It was too late in the fiscal year to form and apply as a consortium, so we asked Navajo County if we could join and be part of their consortium already in progress,” said Sandoval. “They graciously accepted us.”

By May 2018, the consortium ran into problems with responders questioning the process used to choose the provider. By June, it looked as though a legal battle would put the whole process in jeopardy. Sandoval met with Sanders, his partner in the endeavor, about the possibility of forming their own Gila County Consortium and applying the next fiscal year. They agreed to stay with the Navajo Consortium two more months.

In the meantime, Sandoval contacted Eaton and Vander Horst to investigate the possibilities and enlist their help should they strike out on their own.

“By September that year, it was clear we needed to move forward as our own Gila County Consortium,” he said. Sandoval and Sanders were able to engineer the consortium and, with help from an initial consultant, navigated the Request for Proposals process for consideration.

By June 2019, their proposal was accepted. After choosing Sparklight, they were ready to begin the construction phase. They then changed consultants, bringing in Vander Horst. “It was a wise move,” Sandoval said. “His experience and expertise have been invaluable.”

“It is difficult for the average individual to comprehend the wagonload of studies, permits and permissions it takes to place cabling across roadbeds, forest service, reservation, spotted owl breeding grounds, etc. ad infinitum,” he added. “It is a long, slow, stop and go process.”

To top it off, USAC required that all work be completed in one year—by June 2020.

“We all know what happened in 2020. You guessed it—COVID!” said Sandoval. While it did disrupt the process, there was a silver lining. “Because of COVID, USAC provided a one-year extension on all federal projects. Long story short, our project slogged on at a snail’s pace due to multiple studies and permit requirements of sometimes competing federal and state entities.”

By late fiscal year 2021, it was clear the project was not even close to completion, but Vander Horst was able to engineer a final extension until June 2023.

“By November 2022, we were assured that all the schools and libraries would be online by January 1 (2023)—a great Christmas gift!” Sandoval says. “Alas, it was not to be. Heavy snow and more permit delays continued to dog the process.”

At that point, Eaton “really saved the day,” with weekly progress meetings and “a very assertive stance providing assistance and accountability.”

And where is the project today?

“It looks like Hayden/Winkelman - the final school and library - will be online by June 1,” Sandoval said.

Though “tangled and protracted,” the process was well worth it to Gila County students and citizens, he added.

“We know that, though the cabling and ‘trunk’ brought in by our project is specifically for schools and libraries, the cabling access will ultimately benefit high-speed internet access for each community,” Sandoval said.