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EEUU. Tohono O’odham receives US$7.2M for broadband upgrade

SELLS, Ariz. – The Tohono O’odham Nation’s utility authority has been awarded $7.2 million in loan and grant funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to build the infrastructure for a high speed system on the nation’s reservation.

The funding was announced March 24 in a media conference call by U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Congressman Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz.
“The congressman, President Obama and I are absolutely committed to building a strong future for rural America. That means focusing on the appropriate infrastructure to bring those communities into the 21st century. The key to that is the access to broadband Internet, which we believe is a critical factor to community and regional economic development,” Vilsack said.

Many rural and remote areas in the country have no access to broadband Internet service, Vilsack said. Approximately 70 percent of rural homes with Internet access have broadband service, compared to 84 percent of urban homes.

“So there’s a significant difference and the USDA believes it can play a critical role in making a down payment to bring broadband access to people in business across rural America,” Vilsack said.

The funding package to the Tohono O’odham Utility Authority consists of a $3.6 million grant and $3.6 million loan.

The money will be used to design and construct a network of DSL nodes connected by optical fibers – fiber made of glass or plastic that carries light along its length – that will replace the dial-up service and copper-fit nodes currently in place. A fiber optic system is significantly faster and more efficient than the old dial-up service technology.

“It will provide fiber to premises and fix wireless broadband in certain areas. This project on the reservation will make broadband available to almost 3,000 households impacting approximately 11,000 people. The project will make broadband service available for free to fire and ambulance companies, which will obviously improve the quality of life and safety in this community,” Vilsack said.

The project will provide broadband access to a 2.7 million acre area of the Tohono O’odham reservation in the Sonoran Desert in southcentral Arizona. Tohono O’odham is the second largest reservation in Arizona with a land base of 2.8 million acres or 4,460 square miles – about the size of Connecticut. About 70 miles of the nation’s southern boundary is part of the international boundary between the United States and Mexico.

The nation’s 28,000 citizens live in four non-contiguous areas – the main community in Sells, Florence Village, San Xavier and San Lucy. There are also O’odham living in Mexico.

The Tohono O’odham Utility Authority was established in 1970 to provide electric and water service to the reservation. Today, TOUA’s service delivery area includes the main reservation and the San Xavier District, located southwest of Tucson. The TOUA employs around 100 people.

Harriet Toro, chairwoman of the TOUA board of directors, said the broadband project was eagerly awaited.

“We need it and we’ll make use of it. We welcome everything to bring us up to modern technology and it will reach people who have never had these types of services before.”

The new broadband infrastructure is expected to improve government functioning and services, too, Toro said.

The broadband project is expected to create around 100 new jobs in the community, and will put the nation on track to attract better jobs in the future, Vilsack said.

“We hope to be able to improve education on the reservation by using these broadband services at two public school districts with about 1,400 students and it will help those young tribal members obtain high school diplomas and advanced degrees to compete more effectively for jobs.”

On a nationwide basis, the broadband upgrades are expected to expand telemedicine by providing advanced diagnoses for patients, providing farmers with up-to-date commodity and weather information, and creating tens of thousands of jobs in design, engineering, construction and maintenance, Vilsack said.

The USDA is continuing to receive and process applications for funding for broadband projects and expects to have distributed all of the $2.4 billion of recovery funds allocated to the USDA by Sept. 30, 2010, Vilsack said.

Grijalva congratulated Tohono O’odham on being awarded the competitive grant.

“This is a shovel ready project. It will create jobs in our region. This is a big boost not only for the nation, but for the whole region in southwestern Arizona.



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